Rounding up

After spending the rest of the afternoon in bed, Steve took Zoë and me out for a pub supper at the Ben Nevis Inn. I was fuzzily tired. I ate till I was stuffed and regretted that I couldn’t manage more. The next day, my mum drove from a friend’s house where she had stayed near Edinburgh, picked me up from Fort William and drove me home to Sussex.

That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I had spent a month trudging north across this island, going just about as fast as I could while carrying 20kg of kit most of the way. Then in one day I was whizzed back down almost to the South Coast. The road south from Fort William roughly matches the course of the West Highland Way. Every half an hour or so, I could watch a day’s hard walking zip past the window. After a few hours we pulled off the M74 into Happendon services, where Adam and I had stopped to refill our water bottles over a week before. My point, I suppose, is that cars are really, really fast.

When I got home, I put on shoes other than my walking boots for the first time in a month. This felt very strange. My feet appeared to have changed shape. It was at least two weeks before they felt normal again.

I eventually sat down to plot out the course I had taken, as I had deviated from my original plan many times, usually for the better, I hoped. The whole thing is shown below.

The numbers are where I stopped for the night, and the colour of the ring indicates how I felt about my sleeping arrangements:
green – good; orange – fine; red – miserable

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: some stats

Distances

DayDistance walked (km)Comment
117.5Summitted Snowdon
224.0East through Snowdonia, joined the Hiraethog Trail
329.9Through Clocaenog Forest
419.1Finished the Hiraethog Trail
531.2East through Flintshire, crossed into England
622.9Through the Wirral with Tina and Piper, into Liverpool
732.9Sefton Coastal path with Rhodri
826.8Muddy Lancashire with Duncan and Ash
931.2Preston and more mud with Ash
1030.0Along the Wyre Way with Adrian
1125.5Lancaster Canal Towpath
1223.2Into the Lake District, wild camp on Grandsire
1312.6Down to Ambleside
1420.9Includes 5km walk to Blea Tarn with Hugo
1519.6Summitted Scafell Pike with Hugo, Zoë, Steve & Murray
1629.9Down to Keswick with Hugo and Zoë, onwards alone
1737.0Long day to Carlisle along the Cumbria Way
1832.1Crossed into Scotland, few decent footpaths
1929.9North on quiet roads
2029.1Met Adam in Beattock, joined Southern Upland Way
2125.6Over Lowther Hills, left Southern Upland Way
2235.2North to Falls of Clyde, joined Clyde Walkway
2338.7Followed Clyde Walkway into Glasgow, left Adam
2425.4Kelvin Walkway to Milngavie, joined West Highland Way
2533.6West Highland Way to Loch Lomond
2632.4Along Loch Lomond shore, met Con at Inverarnan
2734.6Crianlarich to Rannoch Moor
2841.5Left Con at Kinlochleven, on to Glen Nevis
2915.6Summitted Ben Nevis with Zoë and Steve
Total807.9502 miles!
Total ascent: over 19,400m

Sleeping arrangements

I was very lucky to have people offer to host me, and particularly to have the King family support me with their campervan through a sodden Lancashire. I still managed to do a decent amount of wild camping, though.

Type of sleeping arrangementNights
Wild camp13
Campsite – tent4
Campsite – campervan4
House3
Hostel3
Travelodge1
Shed (much nicer than Travelodge)1
Bivvy1

High points and low points

Since finishing, I have given lectures about my accident, recovery, and challenge to the University of Bristol Expeditions Society, the Southampton University Hillwalking Club (who I bumped into on Scafell Pike), and the Austrian Alpine Club (over Zoom), and one thing I was asked was what were my high and low points. Overall I feel the journey was as I hoped it would be – genuinely challenging, at times a bit grim, at times gruelling, but with some wonderful moments as well.

The high points that spring to mind are:

  • Being taken out to dinner by the couple I met on the train the night before starting
  • Skimming stones in the sun with the lads from Warwick I met on the way down Snowdon
  • Meeting Paul, the most generous man in Wales, and being invited to stay in his shed
  • Rhodri insisting that we spend the evening at his house in Liverpool drinking and watching films
  • Getting to fulfil my childhood dream of sleeping in the bulge in the top of a campervan (I had modest dreams)
  • Walking into the Lake District on a crisp, clear Autumn day and watching the sun set over Windermere and the central fells
  • Inventing, and then winning, the game of Sticklebarn chess, and and enjoying folk music in the pub with Hugo
  • Being given fruitcake by some nurses on Scafell Pike
  • Singing with Zoë and Hugo while wild camping in the woods
  • Getting lashed by the weather on the hills above the Daer Reservoir with Adam (I took a perverse enjoyment in this, though I didn’t enjoy getting into the tent once everything was sodden)
  • Being given a carrier bag full of tea biscuits for some reason in Wanlockhead
  • Seeing the unanticipated beauty of the Falls of Clyde
  • Camping on my own beach on the shores of Loch Lomond
  • Camping on Rannoch Moor with red deer roaring in the night
  • Multiple instances of indulging in much-needed pub food
  • Every time someone popped a donation in my pot – I wasn’t approaching people; they just did it of their own accord, which was lovely

And the low points:

  • Being damp, sore, and lonely along the Hiraethog trail, and having to repeatedly haul myself, bag and all, over gates that shouldn’t have been locked.
  • Feeling sick and exhausted in the Travelodge in Carlisle
  • Trying to reach the Scottish border on terrible paths and getting increasingly frustrated with my slow progress
  • The long, long trudge into Glasgow on feet that were already incredibly painful, arriving in the dark and the rain
  • Struggling as the path along the side of Loch Lomond became rougher and rougher
  • Trying to push myself on through the last quarter of the penultimate day, on to Glen Nevis
  • General constant soreness throughout the second half of the walk as I had to increase my daily distance covered

Spinal Research

I haven’t said much in this blog about the fundraising side of this challenge, which has been remiss of me, since that was really at the heart of why I did this. It was the experience of being confined to a wheelchair for just a few weeks that opened my eyes to how incredibly difficult the life of sufferers from spinal injury must be, and that was the initial impetus to try to come up with a fundraising challenge.

The purpose of Spinal Research is to fund medical research to develop effective treatments for paralysis. Here are a few headline stats from their website:

  • Every day, three people in the UK and Ireland are told they will never walk again
  • Over 50,000 people in the UK and Ireland are paralysed due to spinal cord injury
  • More than 2.5 million people worldwide live with paralysis caused by spinal cord injury

I would like to ask you, if you’ve had the patience to read through this entire, long-winded blog, to spend a few minutes contemplating the implications of what being told you would never walk again would mean for you – of having possibly the most fundamental part of your freedom and autonomy wrested away from you, with no hope of getting it back. Try to imagine not just the practical difficulties, but how it would make you feel, about yourself, your life, your relationships with loved ones and your interactions with strangers, how you would see yourself and how other people would see you. Is a big part of your life is being a provider or a protector, as a parent or a partner? What happens when that goes? How important is it to your sense of self-worth?

My own reflections, back in the early days of my recovery, had me wondering about identity. I want to see myself as an adventurous person, but what if I was completely unable to do anything adventurous ever again? Would I cling onto my own belief of who I was on the inside? Or would I become whatever people saw me to be?

I thought about friendships too. Many of my closest friends are people I go hiking with, and I’m sure lots of people have specific activities they do with friends, and this is what nourishes the friendship. It’s normal that sometimes you miss out on things, and the next time you see your mates you’ve got to get up to speed with the new running joke, or the incident they keep referring to. What if you miss everything, though, because your body no longer lets you do it? You might start to feel like you are drifting away, and maybe becoming less important to them. It would be nobody’s fault. Nobody would want to exclude you. It’s just that sometimes you had to have been there.

Before my accident, if I had thought about what it would be like to lose the use of my legs, I would probably have thought, “I guess I would read a lot and take up painting.” I now think (still writing as someone who was lucky enough not to have it happen) that it would engulf your whole life, your whole self, your whole universe and how you relate to everyone in it. That is why I chose to support a charity whose aim is to change that.

I set up a page on Justgiving a month or two before starting the challenge, and shared it with my friends and family, who were generous and supportive. This was my first time doing something like this, and I had little idea about promotion or fundraising targets. I plucked a target of £1000 out of the air, and after quickly passing that, raised it to £5000. As I walked, I tried to post regular progress updates, and it was great to receive messages of support.

Once all the donations were in after completing the challenge, I had raised nearly £6000, and Spinal Research sent me a certificate which is now my proudest possession. My justgiving page is still live and can be found at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/backontrack3peaks

If you have enjoyed reading about this journey, it would be amazing if you could donate to this cause 🙂

This is as carefully staged as the Queen’s Speech

This blog

I want to thank everyone who has read this. When I started, I thought a handful of friends might read it, but it has been really cool looking at WordPress’ statistics page and seeing that people from all over the world have found their way here. I hope you have enjoyed it, and possibly found it a nice diversion from the pandemic. I have definitely enjoyed writing it.

If you have any questions about any aspect of the walk, or planning a challenge, hiking, camping, or climbing in general, or injury, or anything really, please feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email at alasdair.wj.robertson@gmail.com

I also have a sometimes-used instagram profile on which I have posted nature facts, shakey attempts at painting birds, blurry videos of birds, and an attempt to play the ukulele in a tent. Goals for next year include getting a camera and learning how to use it properly. The profile is @alasdair.wj.robertson

My plan is to keep using this blog for reports on other adventures I have had or will have in the future, though I won’t stretch them out quite so long! I might also post about birdwatching or nature in general, or anything I can think of – who knows? Feel free either to stay tuned or use this as a convenient opportunity to jump ship.

For now, goodnight, and joy be to you all.

The Parting Glass played on a low whistle

Day 29: Ben Nevis

One more day, one more mountain, and then I could finally rest. As tempting as it was to lie there and enjoy having a bed for a bit longer, we had agreed to start in good time, so I rolled out, dressed (putting on my Spinal Research shirt to mark the end of my challenge), and made my way stiffly downstairs. I tried to minimise the impact on my tender feet as I shuffled around in my socks. I joined up with Steve and Zoë in the kitchen to make some porridge for breakfast and sandwiches for the day. Zoë had a ticket for the breakfast buffet as well, and snaffled us a few croissants, as is the way.

I gathered the kit that I needed for the day – not much beyond my battered waterproofs and walking poles – and gave them to Zoë to put in her bag. After carrying my pack all the way from Cumbria, today my shoulders would be free as birds. I imagined that I would practically float up the mountain.

In disagreement with the sign over where the mountain is

In terms of covering the distance to get to Ben Nevis, I really had put all the work in already. From the Glen Nevis hostel, you walk outside, cross a bridge over the River Nevis, and immediately start going up the mountain. Zoë got me to pose for a picture with a big, genuine smile on my face. The floor of the glen is only at about 20m above sea level, and the first section of the path goes steeply up the mountainside for 550m, first zig-zagging, then ascending round a shoulder to reach a broad saddle with a decent-sized lochan. We stopped for a breather there, where the path diverged. Compared to the previous week or two, I was finding this all pretty easy – the fitness I had gained over a month of constant walking was showing itself now. To the right the path continued back and forth up the rounded side of the mountain. To the left it contoured round north and then east to enter into the valley between the ben’s rocky north-east face and a ridgeline of summits on the far side – Càrn Beag Dearg, Càrn Dearg Meadhonach, and Càrn Mòr Dearg.

Steve entering the valley round the north side of Ben Nevis

To me, the shape of Ben Nevis gives the impression of a great, hulking ogre sullenly turning itself away from the world. To the west and south it just presents its bare shoulder and back, and the face where all its character is to be seen is hidden away in its own valley, shielded from view. As we contoured into that valley, that great grey mass of walls, spires, gullies, buttresses and towers rose up to our right. We followed the path to the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial hut – better known as the CIC hut. This was erected by the Inglis Clarks in 1929 in memory of their son, who was killed in Mesopotamia in the last months of the Great War. The whole family were keen amateur mountaineers; Charles’ father, William, was president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and his mother and sister, Jane and Mabel, were co-founders of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club. You can find some absolutely delightful footage of the opening of the CIC hut in 1929 here.

We crossed the excitable mountain stream that runs down the valley just below the hut and left the path behind. The other side of the valley is a huge rocky slope running with a constant gradient all the way up to the ridgeline above. We spotted a point at the start of the CMD arête to aim for, and began picking our way up in a straight diagonal line. We had to tread carefully; the slope was streaked with lines where the loose rock had built up more thickly, and it shifted and wobbled as we crossed.

Halfway up, we stopped for a bite to eat. We sat on the rocks and turned to look at the face of Ben Nevis across from us. We could see it all now. It was imposing, dark, and brutish, and I knew what was going through Zoë’s mind and mine. Somewhere up there was where the student from our club had fallen. Steve began pointing out the famous climbing and scrambling routes. He pointed out Ledge Route, the one where it had happened. Naming it was like speaking the words of a curse. I felt a dark cloud pass over my soul. Zoë later said she had had a wobble at that point – she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be there. I described the face of Ben Nevis before as a climber’s playground, but looking at it then, it scared me. It looked huge, harsh and unforgiving, and the thought that I would probably find myself trying to climb it at some point in the future gave me shivers.

Five hundred metres down the far side of the CMD Arête
Zoë and me blasted by the wind

We pressed on up to the start of the arête. When we reached the crest, we were hit by a blast of cold wind roaring up from the east. I retrieved my extra layers from Zoë’s bag and put away my poles to free up my hands for scrambling. Our hoods went up and we clambered along, braced so as not to lose our balance. There had been plenty of people on the path from Glen Nevis, and we had passed a handful near the CIC hut, but now we were on our own. In fact we could see one group trying to go directly up to the far end of the arête, just to the left of the steep rock routes up to the summit. We didn’t know if that was possible; it looked treacherously steep from where we were and we tried to keep an eye on them from afar.

Steve and Zoë and the end of the arête

We came to the end of the arête and passed a built-up cairn. I eyed it fondly. The first time I had done this route, the wind had been gusting even harder and there had been ice on the rocks. I had had to crawl over to shelter behind the cairn, then signal for my group to do the same. One by one they came, and we made a tight huddle and discussed our options by shouting into each other’s ears over the howling gale. I knew from there we had 200m of ascent left to go. We had decided against trying to escape down the far side of the mountain, and pushed on, and fortunately the wind had died down somewhat.

The final section looks like a huge pile of rocks. You can’t see any ground beneath, but it is reasonably secure. We had plenty of time and took a couple of breaks on the way up. I was so close now.

Looming out of the cloud, the summit cairn on the right, and the shelter and ruined observatory on the left

At last we came to the summit plateau, and could see the shapes of the ruined observatory and the summit cairn looming through the cloud, with walkers from the other direction silhouetted on top. I felt no need to rush – I tried to savour the last few steps. We reached the bottom of the summit cairn. “Go on, mate,” said Steve. I stepped up and touched the trig point, and the three of us gave a little cheer. Fireworks and sparklers would have been nice, but I didn’t need any more fanfare; I was done. Steve and Zoë hugged me, and we got some photos. Steve presented me with a little bottle of whiskey and we each had a tipple. Steve said: “You know what, I know some tough mountain guys, but you’re up there with them now,” which I think is just about the best thing you can hear from a girlfriend’s father. I didn’t think it was necessarily true, but I really appreciated it nonetheless.

Team summit selfie

Other people were waiting for their turn, so we moved off to the shelter of a ruined wall to finish our sandwiches. As we sat there, snow began to fall, which satisfied me hugely. From what had felt like the last day of Summer on Snowdon, I had walked across three countries and all the way into Winter. All we had to do now was get down.

We went via the tourist path. Lots of people were still on their way up: some with dogs, some in jeans, one or two, unbelievably, in shorts. We were still high up when the snow turned into driving rain, the hardest I had been caught in for the whole month. I didn’t care at all. I reflected that really I had been quite lucky with the weather. Yes, I had got wet – Adam and I had been pelted on the Southern Upland Way, and Lancashire had basically been flooded when I walked through it – but I had never had day after day of having to put on already sodden gear. We were completely drenched by the time we reached the hostel, but it had a drying room, and warm showers, and beds, and there was no more walking to do.

Challenge completed

Days of Recovery, Part 3

By the summer after the fall, my recovery seemed to be reaching a plateau. You wouldn’t have known anything was wrong by looking at me, but I felt creaky. Whenever I came back to the house, the first thing I would do was lie down to rest my back. My ankle did not seem to have healed as well as the doctors had hoped, and I was on a waiting list for surgery. I was also due for a follow-up operation on my back in September. I clung onto the hope that these procedures would make things better.

My housemates planned a big, exciting hiking trip to Canada. I didn’t feel I would be able to join them. Instead, I went with my university’s sketch comedy group, The Bristol Revunions, to put on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was my second time doing this and it is an amazing and exhausting experience. Too many students squeeze into a flat together and enter a relentless cycle of trying to drum an up audience from the streets, putting on the show and feeling either the elation of causing laughter or the deflation of a muted response, and then spending the rest of the day dashing between as many other performances as possible. Halfway through August, I found to my dismay that walking constantly round the city was taking a toll on my ankle, and I developed a limp. I needed that surgery.

Sketch comedy

September came, and my mum took me back to Southmead hospital in Bristol. In the original operation, screws had been put into my crushed L1 vertebra, and the one above and below it, and all three fused together with rods. This operation would now remove the connection with the vertebra below, L2, which would allow the joint to move and hopefully cause me to feel less stiff. The vertebrae above would stay fused; that joint had been destroyed.

I was put under again. The surgeon apparently reassured my mum by saying “at least this time it’s not life-threatening”. After having it sliced open and stitched together again, you realise that almost every movement you make involves your back. I spent a few days recovering in a ward, then went home – no two-week stay in a private room this time.

A couple of weeks later, I helped Zoë move into her student house (as much as possible without being able to carry anything heavy), then went in for keyhole surgery on my ankle. The damage turned out to be far worse than they had thought, and some scarring in the joint meant that it would always feel a bit stiff, but soon it should be much better than it had been for most of the year. They did tell me that I wouldn’t be able to take up running, however.

I will move swiftly on through the milestones that happened between then and the start of my walk. The recovery was now just something that was happening passively in the background while I lived my life. I began studying for a Masters in Tropical Forest Ecology. My use of crutches in my first couple of weeks probably helped me stand out a bit in the rush of many meetings that happens at the start of a university term. One friend I made admitted that when she met me she thought I was “just like that”. Gradually my back recovered and, whether imagined or not, I did feel more flexible again. Towards the end of the term, I began going to the local climbing wall, building up my strength.

Winter arrived, and I joined Zoë and other friends on the University of Bristol Expeditions Society Scotland trip again. I was feeling good and was confident that this would be my great return to the mountains. On the first day, I went with Zoë and my friend Rory to climb Dorsal Arête on a snowy Stob Coire nan Lochan, a mountain on the south side of Glen Coe. We had a brilliant icy, adventurous day and felt like serious mountaineers. We had moved fairly slowly, though, and the sun had set by the time we all reached the top of the climb. “We need to get off this mountain,” I said. We made our way briskly down below the snowline and back into the glen by torchlight. My knees began to feel a sharp pain with each step, which had never happened before. When I woke up the next day, I found I could barely walk. The pain lasted for the rest of the trip, and I wasn’t able to climb any more mountains. This wasn’t my great return. It was a great frustration.

Zoë and me approaching the base of Dorsal Arête up a steep snow slope, taken by Rory

In January 2018, my fellow master’s students and I flew to Borneo for a field course, followed by the start of our projects, based at a research station in the tropical forest. Before starting our research, three friends and I hired a car for a mad road trip around the north of the state of Sabah. One moment sticks out to me, when we drove down a dirt lane late in the day to try to find a beach. We came down to a rocky shore at dusk, and after initial hesitation, stripped down to our pants to swim across the mouth of a tidal inlet to reach the strand on the other side. Once there, laughter took us, and we ran along the smooth sand in the brief equatorial twilight. I felt the warm wind rushing past me, and increased my pace to a sprint. What a simple joy it was to feel my body moving like that.

My fellow tropical ecologists on an orangutan transect survey

I stayed in Borneo for four and a half months and had some incredible experiences with monkeys, orangutans, and elephants, and some less incredible ones with leeches and fire ants. For the purposes of this post, though, the important thing is that after a few weeks trekking into the forest every day to catch and record birds, I began for the first time to have the odd day where I didn’t think about my injury. It was a startling and comforting realisation – that the fall really was losing its grip on me.

Old-growth rainforest at the Maliau Basin, Sabah, Borneo

I returned to England at the end of May. To make it up to Zoë for being away for so long, we planned a hiking trip to Norway together. This was a chance to put myself to the next test. It was one thing to be able to hike for a day, it was another to see if I could carry camping gear and a week’s worth of food through a remote national park. Over five days, we crossed the Hardangervidda plateau, arriving at the stunning Trolltunga. It was glorious and magical, and I did it without any real problem. Could I now say my recovery was complete?

Approaching the cake-shaped mountain of Hårteigen in Hardangervidda, Norway

I was bouldering indoors regularly now, but it was not until the autumn, two years since my fall, that my friends arranged a weekend to visit Adam in Sheffield, and I finally went climbing outdoors again. It was, in a word, terrifying. From any point on a climb, I could look down and imagine vividly and with absolute accuracy how it would feel to fall. These flashes would intrude into my head without warning, sending me into a near-panic. I was climbing with Adam, though, and he was patient and I trusted him. I only got a handful of opportunities to climb outdoors over the next few months, but each time I was a little more calm and could stave off those intrusive thoughts. I don’t think I am likely to ever be as bold as I was before, after experiencing so viscerally what is at stake.

Winter came again, as it tends to. I would have happily gone on the UBES Scotland trip yet again, but Zoë was doing a year abroad in Germany, and as she was only back for a couple of weeks, we decided to spend time with her family in their cottage on the edge of Cumbria. We danced the new year in to a live band in a village pub, then went out for a good meal the next day. We then planned to head into the fells with Steve for a couple of days, hiking and camping. At breakfast we saw the news: a student had died in a fall on Ben Nevis. A horrible dread came over us, but we didn’t know any more, so off we went. We wandered up Helm Crag and Gibson Knott. It was a beautiful day, but a cloud lay over us. At one point Zoë dropped back and I turned to see her frozen, looking at her phone. Her friend in Scotland had confirmed that it was a girl on the trip, new to the society, who had fallen.

I tried to comfort her, then began to weep myself. For the loss, for the tragedy, for the pain my friends were going through, and for the awful fulfilment of my worst fear. I do not want for a moment to suggest that my reaction matters compared to the depth of loss felt by those closest to her (her family requested at the time that her name not be published), but I had wanted so badly for people to be safe, and had believed that if everyone took the lessons from my accident on board, then nothing worse would happen, and maybe that would make what I had been through worth it. Now it was all for nothing. No good, just pain. I learned much later that nobody had done anything wrong or made unsafe decisions – it had been a freak slip – but at the time I felt I had failed to do as much as I could have to make people understand the dangers of the hobbies we loved.

Something good. I needed something good to come from my accident. How could life just go around letting terrible things happen for no good reason at all? The god Odin sacrificed an eye in exchange for a drink from the well of wisdom. That was his choice to make. Perhaps I had gained some wisdom, but I had never agreed to the terms. Give me my body back. I want to be whole again, brave and stupid and carefree and unscarred. Give it back, and my time as well.

In the spring, I went to the UBES annual general meeting in Snowdonia. After a soaking day of gales in the hills, we gathered in a barn to drink, elect a new committee, and reflect on the year past. When the rowdy voting was concluded, and most were several bottles deep, Rory, who was president this year, stood on a chair to give a speech. Skinny but with a deep, sonorous voice, and missing the lens from one eye, he painted a picture of a trip that had been bursting with joy and friendship, of a New Year’s Eve that had been one of the happiest days of his life, followed by a New Year’s Day that had been the worst. Looking around, I knew that these brave young people all bore scars now too, and carried a deep hurt. Tears were everywhere.

Rory began to sing The Parting Glass. He had first heard it the year before, when I had played it at the end of a delirious end-of-year party, passing round a glass for everyone to drink from. Then it had carried a promise of times well had and more to come – “Goodnight and joy be to you all”. This time it had a different message – it was a dirge. “Since it fell unto my lot that I should rise and you should not…” We clustered round Rory in an unsteadily swaying embrace, our tears mingling, trying to force the words out through our juddering throats. It was tuneless, raw and beautiful, the most powerful outpouring of emotion I have ever been a part of.

I had to do something good. To make something good out of the bad. I was working as an ecologist, on a six-month contract that ended in mid-September. I had my date. I just needed to think of something. Something that would not only do good, in some small way, for the world, but that would be a rebellion against my injuries, a triumph over them. I would not just show that I could hike and climb again – I would do something bigger and more challenging than I had ever done even before my accident. That is how this story happened.

Day 28: The Great Pass

I made sure we were up and away as the dawnlight was only just beginning to rise. Soon after rejoining the West Highland Way, we saw a large, still shape in the heather. We stalked closer through the gloom, and it resolved into a doe (a deer; a female deer; Cervus elaphus). We were only a few yards away when she spooked into life and fled.

We gradually climbed for a mile or so. To our left was the unpronounceable Meall a’ Bhùiridh, one of the handful of mountains in the area with optimistic ski lifts on its northern slopes. We were climbing to the col between the mountain and the lower hill of Beinn Chaorach. Morning had come by the time we rounded the top, and we could see down to where the A82 carved a straight line across the misty expanse of Rannoch Moor. We curved round to the north-west, and began gently to descend again.

Although after today, I would still have the UK’s highest mountain to climb, this felt like a culmination; the last, longest leg of the journey. I had been deteriorating for two weeks. I was starting the day in that stage where the fuel gauge is pointing to empty and you don’t know when you will be forced to stop. Con’s feet were troubling him too, so it was with a certain grimness in our resolve that we approached the mouth of Glen Coe. This was a big, open landscape where everything we could see took slightly, dishearteningly longer to reach than we expected.

Cloud blanketed the sky, and the landscape’s palette was dun. Nonetheless, the approach to the glen was as magnificent as ever. Buachaille Etive Mòr keeps a brooding watch over the entrance. Seen from the east, it appears as a great, rocky triangle, with climbing and scrambling routes on its north-eastern ridges which are not for the faint of heart or unsteady of step. This was the fifth time I had journeyed to Glen Coe from the south. Not only was it the first time I had approached on foot, it was also the first time in daylight. Previously the mountains had either shone in the moonlight under a starry sky, or appeared only as giant black shapes, deeper than the encompassing blackness.

The Kings House Hotel near the entrance to Glen Coe

We stopped outside the Kings House Hotel, where Con bought a coffee. As we rested, a gaggling guided group of American tourists came out in a whirl of brightly coloured hiking gear and chatter, chirpily excited for their highland experience. Con made some small talk with them – he’s better at that than me. They set off in the same direction as we were heading before Con finished his coffee, which gave us a good little spur; they were a well-aged bunch and even in our state, we weren’t going to let them go faster than us.

We were also encouraged by a lapse of memory on my part. I had been telling Con about how great the Clachaig Inn is, with its stone and wood hikers’ bar serving good food and drink, decorated with mountaineering equipment from ages past (I am not sponsored by them, but I wouldn’t say no). I set my eyes on a clump of trees where I thought it was. Sadly my memory had failed me; it actually lies at the other end of Glen Coe. It probably wasn’t worth a detour on foot.

Con and Buachaille Etive Mòr

The mountains closed around us as we entered the glen (although here it looked more like a strath, if you ask me). Rather than following it, we turned up the side of the glen, to climb over its northern mountain wall via the Devil’s Staircase. It’s an ominous name, and it does zigzag up to the highest point on the West Highland Way at 550m, but this was the section I had walked nearly three years before, while still on crutches, less than three months after my accident, so it can’t be that bad. Apparently workers from Kinlochleven would sometimes fail to find their way home from the pub along the steep path, and folk would say they had been claimed by the devil.

Realising just how much I smelled

As we trudged slowly upwards, I took out my phone to film a little bit of it. As soon as I lifted my arm up, I could smell myself. With the odd breather, we crept back and forth until we reached the saddle, and could see the stony path twisting off ahead towards the Mamores mountain range, the final great barrier between me and Ben Nevis. There was not a building in sight, until we advanced far enough to see the Blackwater Reservoir away to the right. We ambled along fairly happily, though Con was saying he would probably not make it to Glen Nevis. I was reluctant to leave him behind, but it was becoming increasingly clear that he was suffering. When we rounded a spur and could see the wooded valley winding down towards Kinlochleven, we sat down for a break. Con worked out that he could catch a bus from the village to Fort William, and escape by train, and so the plan was settled. We were passed by a few other walkers while we rested, including a very friendly couple from Oregon coming the other way. They were wildly enthusiastic about the beauty of the highlands. I haven’t been to the States, and I asked them what Oregon was like. “Pretty similar to this really,” was the reply.

The open view ahead from the top of the Devil’s Staircase

Though going uphill may be tiring, descent is harder on weary feet. Coming down took far longer than I remembered. “Where the hell is this village?” exclaimed Con at one point. When we finally limped to the valley floor, it was no surprise that we made straight for the Tailrace Inn. It was empty when we arrived, and we ordered macaroni cheese and chatted to the barman. He had grown up in the little village, tucked away at the end of its own valley, on the tip of Loch Leven. When he had been a lad, everyone had worked in the hydroelectrically-powered aluminium smelter. In fact, the whole place was powered by the hydroelectric works, and Kinlochleven claims to be the first village in the world where every house had electricity. The smelter closed in 2000, however, and the village folk have been trying to establish a future for the area. There is plenty of tourism in the summer months, but apparently in the winter, it is a ghost town. One reason to visit, though, I can attest, is the excellent macaroni cheese.

While we ate, a group of four young hikers came in, and we struck up conversation. They had met each other along the way and started walking together – they were from Poland, Czechia, Germany, and Australia. The German woman told us how she had travelled here specifically to walk the Way. I asked her about long-distance footpaths in Germany and she said there weren’t as many and they weren’t as good. They all expressed admiration for the British hiking culture. I felt a soft glow of pride in my country, rare in that it wasn’t tainted by some dark undertone. I usually feel that a lot of the achievements we are supposed to take national pride in are built on the foundations of imperialism and industrialism, and a lot of our heroes weren’t great eggs when you dig down into it, but this was something else. We love hiking. How pure, how precious.

We had walked 20km that day, which I would say is a decent longish hike for an ordinary day, and after I had finished eating and resting, it was getting on for mid-afternoon. The hikers were staying there for the night, apart from the Australian woman, who was winding scraps of sheep’s wool round her toes to stave off blisters before setting off. I looked at the route. With my rough knowledge of the geography of the area, I knew that Glen Nevis was the next valley over. I didn’t want to believe what my phone was incontrovertibly telling me though, that in order to reach my end point for the day, I would have to do the same distance again.

The problem was, as I mentioned before, there was a mountain range in my way. Some of the Mamores are over 1000m high, and to cross them directly at a saddle would involve going steeply up above 800m. The West Highland Way skirts widely round them through Lairigmor – The Great Pass.

Looking back down the wooded slopes to Kinlochleven

Con saw me off for my last push. He was off to spend a romantic weekend with his wife, and I couldn’t blame him. The path climbs 250m up the side of the valley, straight out of the village, to enter into the pass. Fortunately, the afternoon had brightened up, and there were fine views through the leafy woods across Loch Leven and towards the Pap of Glencoe. I admired them even as I huffed and groaned and blew air through my lips. I moved slowly, achingly, leaning on my poles to drive myself upwards. Finally I levelled out and the mountain walls on either side stretched ahead, forming a wide, brown valley. The only features were the track and the river, going on and on, deep into the mountains.

Lairigmor, The Great Pass, going on and on

Fairly early on, I passed a nice lady who was going to spend the night in Kinlochleven, and a sheep farmer drove past at one point, but after that, there was nobody. West I went for several kilometres, all the same, all the way along. I eyed up the mountains to my right, wondering how hard it would be to cut over a saddle, but there were no shortcuts to be had. Eventually the valley curved right, round the western end of the Mamores. I passed through an area of largely clear-felled forest that had been planted up one side of the valley.

As the light took on a late afternoon hue, I came across a large cairn, and a sign that told how the defeated Campbells had fled this way after the Battle of Inverlochy, with the MacDonalds chasing them down. The cairn marked where the pursuers gave up and turned back. Supporters of the MacDonalds are supposed to add a stone to the cairn, while Campbell fans are advised to take one away. I abstained.

After who knows how far, I came to an information board with a little roof over it, and a flat bit of concrete to sit on. The sky was clouded over again, the light was beginning to fade, and the temperature was dropping. I set up my stove and checked my phone. Zoë was on her way north with her dad, Steve, and we had been updating each other on our progress, but here there was no signal. I was truly alone. I put on my layers as it began to drizzle, and ate the last of my cous cous packets, and just about anything else I had left. Then I packed up my bag for the last time.

I trudged into the night. The rain got harder and the darkness pressed in. I could no longer tell how far along on the path I was – I could only illuminate my immediate surroundings, and I couldn’t get GPS on my phone. All I knew was that I was going up and down, and getting wet. My surprisingly handy little umbrella had dropped off the side of my bag by Loch Lomond. I thought that after going up for a while, I must have come to the edge of the pass, but instead, the path took me on and on. It felt endless, but I knew there would be light at the end of it. I had vaguely thought of camping in Glen Nevis, but that was long-abandoned. I would slump into the hostel, and wait, and see Zoë, and then have a bed.

At last, I emerged to see dark, open sky above me, lights below, and a great blackness across the valley. A forestry track opened into a clearing around me. I checked my phone and found I had signal again. Zoë was in Scotland, and I was 3.5km from the hostel. She booked me a bed and told me I was doing so well. It was with a slight extra spring in my hobble that I made my way downwards along the track. Finally, the worst really was behind me. An hour later, at 9:30pm, I reached the hostel. I was soaked and could barely function, but they were expecting me. They showed me around, and somehow I found the energy not to collapse immediately but to shower, change my clothes, and put a wash on. Then I sank deep into a chair in the lobby and waited.

When Zoë came in, I hugged her tightly, and Steve gave me a warm handshake. “See you on Ben Nevis in two weeks,” he had said, the last time I had seen him, back in Keswick. Here I was. I had done it. There was one more thing to sort out, though, before I could sleep. We had to make a plan for tomorrow. Ben Nevis is not like Snowdon. Snowdon is in some ways a perfect hikers’ mountain. The summit can be approached by a path following a ridgeline from almost any direction, and you can reach the top by anything from an invigorating but straightforward walk, to a tricky climb (or by sitting on a train). You could even start on one side, come down the other, and easily get a bus back. Ben Nevis is not like that. It is a great, dark hulk, hunched over to present only its steep but rounded shoulder to the world. There is only one path to the summit, and only two places to approach from the bottom, really: Glen Nevis to the west and the valley to the north-west. To the east lies a range of subservient mountains for miles and miles. Its north face, folded in on itself, is a climber’s playground with dozens upon dozens of routes up via gullies, ridges, and faces. The casual walker, though, has little choice but to slog up the long, zigzagging path, reach the top, enjoy the view of the permanent cloud that is there, and then go back the same way.

Even after walking across three countries for a month, this was too dull a prospect for me to contemplate, so Steve, Zoë, and I agreed to go the other way. Across from the north face of the Ben is a ridge with three peaks, each with their own name. These form a continuous horseshoe with the Ben, joined to it by a long, narrow ridge, known as the CMD (Càrn Mòr Dearg) arête. The walk/scramble along this is not technically challenging, but it is reasonably long, committing, and exposed in places, and is much more interesting and exciting than the path. That was where we would go. And with that settled, I said a heartfelt goodnight, went to my dorm, and slept the sleep of the dead.

Day 27: Anniversary

We woke before sunrise, but given the dwindling daylight hours, this wasn’t particularly early. I had set an alarm that I hoped would get us moving in good time without me seeming pushy. I was very appreciative that Con had come to join me and I wanted him to enjoy the walk. This was the first time I had seen him since his wedding the previous month, and in fact he admitted that it was the first time he had been away from his wife for more than six hours. I was very touched that he had torn himself away for this, and I didn’t want to be too punishing a taskmaster. I did need to crack on, however.

A cloudy morning in Glen Falloch

The village of Crianlarich lies at the confluence of two glens and a strath. Both are Gaelic-derived words for a valley; the difference is in their breadth, a strath being a broad, shallow-bottomed river valley, while a glen tends to be narrower and deeper. The West Highland Way had an option to go down into the village, which marks its halfway point, but we stayed up on the valley shoulder and turned into a forest, passing another pair of walkers. A brief shower didn’t do too much damage as we trundled along the contouring track, surrounded by green.

After a couple of kilometres, we began to gradually descend towards the bottom of Strath Fillan. We crossed a paddock that was home to some diabetic ponies, followed by a footbridge over the River Fillan, before finding the remains of St Fillan’s priory. Fillan was an eighth century saint with a useful trick up his sleeve. His left arm glowed, giving him the ability to study and write through those long Scottish winter nights, allowing huge savings on candles. He could cure the mentally ill, make his bell fly to his hand, and once persuaded a wolf to take up the workload of an ox it had killed, presumably by playing on its guilty conscience. The priory was restored with a grant from Robert the Bruce, after Fillan’s arm bone had granted him the luck he needed to win the Battle of Bannockburn.

We passed through a campsite where Con bought a coffee, and carried on along the strath floor. A mile along the river, we encountered an information board displaying a tasteful use of the Papyrus font. It told of a legend that Robert and his army had thrown their swords into a nearby Lochan after being defeated in a previous battle. This is just the sort of story I love, and a temptation pressed me to go and take a look in the water. If I did find a legendary sword, though, I reflected, it would ultimately just be one more heavy thing to carry, so we moved on. After passing through another patch of forest for a mile or so, we reached Tyndrum. This small village exists mostly as a waystation, from which a traveller can either head north or west. After Crianlarich, the railway splits into two lines which continue along Strath Fillan, running on either side of the valley. They both stop at Tyndrum, at separate stations, before continuing to either Oban or Fort William, giving it the claim of being the smallest UK settlement with two stations.

Next time, baby

Although the village is well set up to serve walkers of the Way, I didn’t want to tarry and we pressed on through into the northbound glen. The steep sides of Beinn Bheag and Beinn Odhar draw together narrowly so that road, railway, and footpath run right alongside each other. The mountains round here are tall enough that they would be hiking hotspots anywhere in England, but Scotland is so spoilt for choice that these are overshadowed by their more famous cousins in other ranges. I wasn’t even taking much notice of them; as close to them as we were, they more or less formed bracken-covered walls around us, disappearing up into the cloud.

It suddenly seemed a bit chillier, and we layered up and sat down for a bite to eat. I know I am repeating myself, but my feet were very sore. Con hadn’t done any walking for a while, and his were beginning to feel it too. On our next section, I showed him the songs on my phone I had been using to force myself on at a quick pace. The valley opened up ahead of us, and we had a long, straight march alongside the railway to Bridge of Orchy. We passed a few highland cattle lying contentedly down by the river.

Coobeasties

Perhaps a couple of kilometres from Bridge of Orchy, we spotted a couple of walkers far ahead of us, and Con decided we should overtake them before reaching the village. Accordingly, we set ourselves a quick march, passed them with a “Good afternoon!” just before crossing under the railway line to the station, and then quickly sought a pub to recuperate in. We spent at least an hour in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, with a drink, a bowl of chips, a sticky toffee pudding, a pack of cards, and our boots off. As we were about to leave, the couple we had said hi to outside Crianlarich came in. I recommended the sticky toffee pudding, and the woman said she had never heard of it before. I felt very sorry for her, but hoped she was about to open up a new chapter in her life.

An excellent break

We crossed the River Orchy over its famous bridge, and reluctantly began to climb. The path left the road and railway behind, taking us up to the shoulder of a mountain with a beautiful view over Loch Tulla. Beyond the loch to the north-east, the land rose gradually to three low hills, standing guard on the southern end of Rannoch Moor.

Looking over Loch Tulla towards the edge of Rannoch Moor (click to view embiggened). Incidentally, Con is a professional photographer, but had decided not to bring a camera, so you are stuck with my phone pictures

When I was about twelve, my family broke with our habit of going on holiday to the same places every year and drove up to spend a few days in Kinloch Rannoch, which, according to dad, was in the ancestral heartland of the Robertson clan. This trip was tremendously exciting for me. I was thrilled to feel that I was descended from fierce highland warriors and that I might have a real connection to such a place, thrilled to see the lochs and glens, thrilled that from my window, I could see the pointed peak of Schiehallion, and thrilled to learn that its name meant “Fairy Mountain”, which seemed to confirm that Scotland was as magical as I imagined. I was thrilled that the hotel served cinnamon doughnuts for breakfast. On one day, we hiked up onto the shoulder of a mountain, and while my parents sat there admiring the view, I said I would just go on a bit further to try to get to the top. When I reached the rise above us, I found that the mountain went on further and further, and I followed. It was only when my sister came running after me to say that I had been gone ages that I reluctantly turned back. We also drove out for a wander on the eastern edge of Rannoch Moor. I remember looking out over its open expanse of bogs and lochans, and deciding it was the bleakest, emptiest place in the world.

The West Highland Way came down to skirt round Loch Tulla, then climbed gradually up for five or six kilometres to the western edge of the moor. Con and I took a break sitting on our bags at the bottom of the slope, before bracing ourselves for the long, though fairly gentle climb. Stepping was painful for both of us now, but we needed to cover more distance if I was going to have a chance of reaching Glen Nevis by the next evening.

The light was dying when the path levelled out at around 310m. I think I would have liked to have got in sight of Glen Coe that day, but I realised it wasn’t going to happen. I was aware that Con was struggling. I adopted an “a bit further, a bit further” strategy, and wished I owned a cattleprod. We consulted the map for possible stopping points and decided we would get to Bà Bridge and assess the situation. It was dark when we reached it. I persuaded Con that we should go on another kilometre, to where Bà Cottage was marked on the map. I sat by the bridge, listening to the rushing of the black river below while Con phoned his wife, and vaguely wondered if I was cruel.

Probably less to my surprise than to Con’s, Bà Cottage was just some low, ruined walls. It was interesting to wonder who had lived there, isolated between the moor and the mountains. The ruin did at least have some flat, dry ground to camp on, and stones to sit on while we cooked. We were 41km from Glen Nevis. My final day of trekking before the ascent of Ben Nevis was going to be the longest of the entire journey. There was at least something vaguely satisfying about this, even if it was going to be a trial.

We enjoyed our food in our lonely little spot, our headtorches tiny specks in the vastness. The roars of a red deer stag were carried to us on the wind, and I remembered that it was rutting season. These made a pleasingly wild soundtrack as I settled in for my penultimate night of the journey. It was the 17th of October, exactly three years since I had fallen, three years since I had lain broken in a hospital bed, wondering what lay ahead of me. Look how far I had come.

Day 26: The Low Road

I had the romantic notion of going for a wild swim in Loch Lomond. A secluded beach backed by pinewoods and a still, clear loch with mountains all around – what could be better? Once I was thigh-deep in the water, however, I had a rapid temperature-induced change of heart and settled for a splash and a scrub followed by a hasty exit.

There had been a fair amount of rain in the night and it looked like more was on its way, so I didn’t waste too much time in packing up and setting off, as I might have otherwise done in a place like that. I wound back up through the pines to rejoin the West Highland Way. It took me onto the small road that runs up the east side of the loch, past a campsite and a few lodges before having nowhere left to go. I got to a toilet block just as rain began to come down heavily and was able to waterproof up under shelter.

Soon after, I had a choice to make. The Way split into a high road and a low road. I don’t know if this was a deliberate choice by the route’s creators to fit with the iconic chorus of Loch Lomond, but it made me smile to think about. If you don’t know the song, the chorus goes:

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,

And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye,

But me and my true love will never meet again,

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

I’ve heard a few different interpretations of this, but the common theme is that one of the roads represents death, hence why the narrator and their love will never meet again on the banks of Loch Lomond. Some say the high road is death, and the deceased will be carried back to their homeland on angels’ wings, others say it’s the low road, the underworld through which the narrator will be spirited away. The choice lay before me: heaven or the underworld?

(Note that in the more romantic version sung by the Corries, the lovers ultimately will meet again, “far above the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond”)

The main factor in my decision was the ascent. At this point, I resented taking a single step upwards when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. There was a sign warning that the low road was rough and slippery, but I could see from my map that the high road climbed up to 130m. An old couple turned onto the high road, which appeared to be a wide, smooth track. I took the low.

Reader, it was a mistake. I was blindsided by how much tougher this way was than the gentle lochside paths of the day before. This part of the loch lay directly below Ben Lomond, whose notoriously steep, steep sides fell straight down into the water. The path was narrow, rocky, uneven, and constantly writhed up and down through the tangled woods clinging to the banks. In places slimy steps and boardwalks took me over tumbling streams and into gullies. Rain showers came down again and again. My hope to avoid ascent was dashed completely; the path went constantly up and down steeply, just never actually climbing to anywhere in particular. On a day where I had intended to hurry in order to meet up with Con, I found my progress painfully slow. I messaged him a revised estimate for my arrival at Inverarnan and forced myself on. I did pass other walkers, some of whom I felt really sorry for, because they clearly weren’t prepared for this. More groups probably overtook me, though. I couldn’t do this without rests.

I don’t actually know whether the high road would have been easier, but I certainly believed it at the time. After nearly 5km, the high road came down to merge with the low, but this didn’t seem to mean that the path got much easier. I didn’t see the old couple again, so I assumed they must have outpaced me. After struggling on for another 4km, I reached the Inversnaid Hotel, where a footbridge over Arklet Water grants a good view of a lovely waterfall. I filled up my water, sat on a bench, and ate – I was racing through my snacks today, both as much-needed fuel and as emotional pick-me-ups.

For no reason, I had thought that the hotel might mark the end of the difficult path. It was not so. It continued in the same vein for several more kilometres. Every awkward step up onto a boulder, of which there were many, elicited some kind of gasp or grunt. I was a broken horse beating itself. I messaged Con again to say to expect me even later. The loch was still beautiful when glimpsed through the trees, make no mistake, but I just wished it would end (despite the beauty, I only took one picture in the day, which is reflective of my mental state). Fortunately, the weather did get better in the afternoon.

At long last, the path pulled away from the forest and the end of the lake, and I trundled along the last section to Inverarnan, where Con was waiting with a conciliatory smile and the news that the pub was open. Unlike the other friends who joined me on the walk, Con and I were schoolboys together, and had basically lived together for five years in the same boarding house in our teens. We both took a gap year after school and signed up for the 2013 British Exploring 18-25 Oman expedition. This was an incredible experience for a couple of boys who had always loved the idea of big adventures without ever really having had the chance to go on one. We spent three weeks exploring the vast expanses of the Empty Quarter desert, learning navigation and leadership skills, and then four weeks conducting biodiversity surveys along a wadi in the coastal Dhofar Mountains. For those seven weeks, we didn’t sleep a single night under so much as a tent, and our base camp for the second half was on an inaccessible, paradise-like beach next to the Arabian Sea. I learned that there is a ridiculously huge amount of world to explore, and that I wanted desperately to spend my whole life seeing it.

Base camp in the Empty Quarter. We had tents, we just all immediately decided we wanted to sleep under the stars, always
Con striking a pose in the dry bottom of Wadi Sayq
Young Alasdair, feeling like a real explorer. I took great pleasure in always having a Swiss Army knife clipped to my belt, my trusty binoculars round my shoulder, and often a bird book shoved into the back of my trousers, because I didn’t have a pocket big enough and needed quick access

I staggered into a chair and perused a menu of earthly delights. We both got a macaroni cheese and shared a side of chips, all of which Con insisted on paying for; I think he could read in my eyes what I had been though. They came in magnificent portions, and we clearly hadn’t read the menu carefully, because the pasta came with its own chips as well. I wasn’t complaining. I ate till I was almost bursting, then sat there contentedly as Con conversed with the people at the next table (the only others there) about their strikingly lovely husky-like dog, which apparently has its own Instagram account.

It was late in the day when we eventually waddled out and began to make our way north and then north-west along Glen Falloch. The path was wide enough for us to walk abreast of each other, and Con’s upbeat chatter went some way towards distracting me from my aches. The day was soon fading and we spent some time walking in the dark, but we managed to put 9km between the pub and our eventual campsite, a flattish patch of ground up on the north side of the glen, a couple of kilometres from Crianlarich.

I eyed up Con’s kit as he unpacked. Before the Oman trip, he and I had gone to an outdoor shop together to make the throat-tighteningly expensive investment of just about everything you need for an adventure, and I still use a lot of that kit now – backpack, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, walking clothes, etc. but Con seemed to have all new stuff. I asked him about it. “I hadn’t used my kit for a while and my parents found it when they were clearing up the house and threw it out.” My heart bled.

Lying in the tent, I eyed up the distances shown to me by my mapping app. I had two days left to get to the foot of Ben Nevis. That was 76km away. Two big days, or a big day and a huge day. I had to put us within striking distance tomorrow. What was striking distance? About 40km had been my biggest day so far. That had been horrible, but that was my mark. Tomorrow we would leave the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park behind, and cross the wide land that I knew only as half-lit scenery racing past the window when following the A82 to or from the mystical Glen Coe.

Day 25: Bonnie Bonnie Banks

I woke up in the early half-light, and came out of my tent to see a lake of night-mist slowly ebbing back down into the river valley. I needed to put in a good stint today. I stretched and examined how my body was feeling. My back was all right; feet, hips, and shoulders – not good, but that was normal now. There wasn’t much hope of me walking particularly fast, so I would have to go for a long time. I brokefast and packed up, and set off just after sunrise.

Morning mist

I crossed Dumgoyach bridge over the small river of Blane Water, then followed it downstream along the side of the valley as it flowed north. The path here was once the Blane Valley railway, which skirted around the range of high hills that I had been able to see from the edge of Glasgow, the Campsie Fells. I passed the Glengoyne distillery and soon after, the Beech Tree bar, which wasn’t yet open. I like to think that I wouldn’t have stopped there even if it had been, but a rest would already have been tempting.

This place really deserved my custom, if only they were open

Old railway lines tend to be beautifully flat, so following this one made for an easy start to the day. It took me as far as the riverside hamlet of Gartness, where I sat on a wall and had a break. The West Highland Way followed a road for a few kilometres, which I wasn’t enthused about, but I couldn’t put it off. A bit further on, I ducked into a barn in a small camping farm to fill up my water, and said hi to some other backpackers who were just setting off for their second day of walking. The next section of the road rose gently until I caught a sliver of the surface of Loch Lomond in the distance. Soon, I drew level with Drymen. The official West Highland Way website lists Milngavie to Drymen as the first of the eight 16-24km legs into which it divides the route. I was out of kilter with these, having started my first day on the Way in late afternoon, but I would have to average just under two of them per day.

First glimpse of Loch Lomond

Happily, I soon left the road and was into the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. I was getting lucky with the weather; it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. Looking back, if that last week in Scotland had consisted mainly of torrential downpours, as I was afraid it would and as it easily could have, it might have broken my spirits completely. The path began to climb, and I began to sweat, and sat on a stump in a shaded picnic area for a while, where walkers from the campsite I had raided passed me again with a smile. Further on, I came out onto a hillside where the trees had been felled, and I saw the path twisting ahead, dotted with groups of walkers, out enjoying the weather. I looked with some dismay to where the path climbed up the ridge of Conic Hill and out of sight round the other side. It looked like a slog, but I thought I had better get on with it.

At the top of the climb, I reluctantly admitted to myself that it probably had been worth it. The views across Loch Lomond and its many islands and surrounding mountains were superb. The Way did have the mercy not to require me to go to the summit, which I skirted round, passing many families coming up from the other direction. Several of these appeared to include people who were being forced up a (really quite small) mountain for the first time, and found the whole affair highly dubious.

Probably worth the climb

I made my way gingerly down the steep path on the other side towards Balmaha and the lochside; it would have been a disaster if I had done my knees in then. With relief, I entered the shade of tall conifers for the last stretch down to the village. Balmaha invited me to linger for a while. I read information boards in its visitor centre, filled up my bottle at the pub, and listened to a hand-powered talking boulder (I will not explain this. Go there yourself).

Have you ever noticed how some trees are casually really tall?

I came across a garden called Tom Weir’s Rest, celebrating the life of the much-loved Scottish hiker, author, and TV personality. I could not turn down the opportunity to take a rest here. Although the village was buzzing with tourists, I still found peace on a bench looking over towards a little harbour. I felt that everything would be beautiful from here on. I had arrived on the shores of a loch so bonnie that people sing about it. Loch Lomond is one of the first traditional Scottish songs I learnt, and is always sure to get people singing along when launched into in a bunkhouse or out on a hike. I had glimpsed the bonnie bonnie banks before on the long drive to or from the highlands, but never had had time to admire them in all their gentle glory.

The path along the lochside was easy, pleasant, and scenic. It did occasionally see fit to climb over a low hill, but I couldn’t begrudge it this flightiness. The eastern shore of the loch is covered in mossy oak forests, and while I was there, the leaves were just beginning to turn. An information board told me that, historically, the oak woods were a hub of pre-industrial industrial activity, providing essential ingredients for leather tanning. I wistfully imagined living in such a world, where livelihoods could be provided by a land relatively unstripped of its beauty and biodiversity. I ambled contentedly along as the day began to fade.

Another plucky tree

I dropped down into a tiny bay to cook supper on my stove. I took off my boots and socks to let my feet breathe as I watched the water lap at the grey gravel under the twilit clouds. Perhaps in my moment of peacefulness, I managed to melt into the calm scene, because a robin fluttered down to join me. It hopped forward, bold but slightly uncertain, approaching me, eventually coming right up to my toes and pecking at them. I wondered if it would do the same to my finger, but apparently it was not into that. After it left me, I took out my whistle and played a few tunes. I could hear the sounds of families on a campsite nearby, and I hoped that I was enhancing their experience rather than annoying them. I’ve heard what I’m sure is an old joke that the greatest sound in music is that of bagpipes fading into the distance. There’s truth in it – up close the pipes can be brash and bulldozing, but far away they take on an echoey wistfulness. I think a similar thing applies to the tin whistle. I’ve been told off before for playing it in a small room where it can be shrill and piercing, but a misty Scottish evening lends it some magic, or so I hope.

Nobody is on this blog for the quality of the photos

My friend Con had got the train up and was staying at an inn, ready to meet me the next day at the north end of the loch. I think I hadn’t realised just how far the narrow arm of Loch Lomond stretches north. Inverarnan, the hamlet where we would meet, was still 28km away. I sent him a message apologising and saying that I wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon, and set off again to put some distance behind me in the dark. The trees closed around me as I climbed over a hill through Ross Wood, my headtorch only a small beam of illumination against the pressing dark. Unlike on the outskirts of Glasgow, though, the dark held no uncertainty for me. I knew this was a peaceful place.

After covering another 5km from where I had my robin encounter, I saw a sign identifying a small peninsula as a designated camping site. In the summer months, the shores of Loch Lomond are one of the few parts of Scotland where camping is restricted, but it was mid-October now, and I could camp where I liked. I could probably have walked further, but a quick investigation found a secluded beach that I could have all to myself, and that was too tempting to pass up. I pitched my tent on the white, gravelly sand, and looked forward to the view that would be revealed to me come morning. I had covered 34km that day, and was just short of Rowardennan, the end point of the second of the West Highland Way’s legs. The path along the lochside had been very easy going, and I was looking forward to more of the same tomorrow. I may still be sore, but this would be no trouble at all.

Day 24: The Start of the End

I woke up hurting again. I gingerly clambered down from my top bunk and made my way to the ground floor for a breakfast, the specifics of which I can’t remember, but which left the impression of being slightly disappointing. I took my time over it, not particularly keen to get moving again. Eventually, Adam and I packed up our stuff and checked out. Adam left for the station, to catch a train back towards Beattock, where he had left his car four days before, and I turned to follow the river. The sun was out, but it did nothing to help the stiffness that was everywhere in my body. My progress was slow, and again I found myself resenting all the time it would take just to get out of the city.

Not a happy bunny. A very tired and sore bunny

I cut through the University of Glasgow area, which looked nice, to join the Kelvin Walkway. I descended some steps to follow the shady riverside below street level, where parents were out walking their children and dogs, every one of which I would imagine was having a better day than me. I followed this fairly pleasant section for about a mile before diverting back up to the street. I needed to resupply once more. An enormous Tesco Extra swallowed me up for an unknown length of time. I utterly failed to solve the travelling salesman problem as I drifted up and down aisles, torn between temptation and practicality – more food might make me feel better, but I would have to carry all of it.

Outside the shop, the backpack went up again like a millstone onto my shoulders, and I continued north-west. I rejoined the Kelvin Walkway a couple of kilometres further on in Maryhill, sat down on a park bench, and started eating the snacks I had just bought – no point in saving them. The path sloped up, and then, from the top of the rise, I could suddenly see the edge of the city, and hills in the distance. I sighed my relief. I always felt awkward and out-of-place lugging my backpack through the middle of towns and cities. I carried on past the last outskirts and picked up the river again as it wound through wet, green fields.

The hills beyond Glasgow. The one on the far left is Dumgoyne, a volcanic plug not far from where I ended up spending the night

I tried to force myself into a regimen of marches and breaks, but repeatedly failed to stick to it, walking shorter distances with longer breaks in between. At one point, I missed a turn and wasted valuable energy bashing along the wrong side of the river for a few hundred metres before realising my mistake. Annoyed with myself, and knowing that all distance saved was precious, I cut out a loop of the walkway by following a road for a kilometre before picking it up again. My back was starting to tire, and I lay on a bench for a while, listening to a podcast. It was half past four by the time I reached the edge of Milngavie, disgusted by how slowly I had progressed that day. Fortunately, my arrival here came with a mental boost. Everywhere, signs, benches, and information boards proclaimed proudly that here was the start of the West Highland Way.

This was a beautiful sight to me

The West Highland Way – even the very name must resonate with all hikers and lovers of the outdoors across the United Kingdom and beyond. It conjures up images of lochs and rivers and misty glens, moors and mountains, high roads, low roads, and blooming heather. It exists as a call to leave the world behind; why sit at home when there are long paths to the wild highlands waiting to be trodden? For me, it represented the last lap, and, finally, the perfect route. It was built for walkers like me. There would be no need to navigate or worry about where I would sleep. There would be no need for shortcuts – it ran almost as directly as possible to the foot of Ben Nevis. The summit was less than 100 miles away. I still had to go fast. It was late afternoon on Monday, 14th October. I wanted to finish the journey with Zoë, and she and her dad, Steve, would be driving up on Friday evening. That meant I had to walk the Way in just over four days, faster than most people do it when they’re fresh, and I was so, so tired.

I had covered only 17km so far that day. I resolved that I would have to keep walking into the night. The path first followed Allander Water into the pleasant Mugdock Wood, green and mossy. I nodded and smiled to other walkers. Barely 3km out from Milngavie, however, a crick in my back started loudly complaining. I stopped and tried to work it out, lying down and curving my spine round in every way I could think of. The rest allowed the discomfort to ease off a bit, but there was no satisfying click and release. I carried on, past Scroggy Hill, down to the side of Craigallian Loch. The discomfort came back almost immediately, so I tried again to be rid of it. I did cat-cow poses, spinal twists, and draped myself back into an arch over my backpack. It was hopeless. I went on as best I could, shifting my pack around constantly to avoid loading my lower back.

Darkness fell, and I came out into open, rough ground. I passed two headtorch-lit backpackers coming the other way, presumably hoping to reach their journey’s end that night. I couldn’t go much further. I would have to stop and hope I could sleep my back pain off. I pitched my tent beside the satisfyingly hill-like hill of Dumgoyach, cooked my supper, and lay gratefully down. The end was in sight, but reaching it would still be a challenge, and if my back gave up, it could all go wrong. I hoped that the beauty of the highlands would drive me forward in high spirits. Plus, I had one more friend to join me, Con, who would be waiting for me on Wednesday at the far end of the great Loch Lomond. If nothing else, I’d make him carry things for me.

My route from Carlisle to the start of the West Highland Way

Days of Recovery, Part 2

We drove to Scotland the day after Boxing Day, thirty or so students off to spend a week at a bunkhouse in Fort William for some winter mountaineering. I wanted to help with unloading the van and setting things up, but was limited to light tasks, so I clacked around on my crutches directing people instead – this was my third time coming on this trip and the routine was familiar. I claimed a bedroom on the ground floor and relaxed while the newer members met their winter skills instructor and the old hands planned their first days’ adventure. I found myself listening to their discussions with a certain trepidation I hadn’t felt before.

In the morning, everyone went off early, and I put on some music, washed up the breakfast things, and worried. My friends had gone off to climb mountains, and now I understood what they were putting at risk. Did they understand? Could they? I had had a lot of time to think about what we were doing, and had concluded that I wasn’t nearly as experienced as I had pictured myself, and neither was practically anyone else I knew. The student life had warped my perception of what it takes to become truly experienced. In two years I had gone from being a beginner to helping to run a hiking, climbing, and mountaineering society, running trips, leading walks, and teaching people to climb, without a proper adult in sight. I realised now that all of us were only just starting out on our journeys as climbers, and I desperately felt the need to make people understand this.

On that trip, I started to feel a terrible sense of dread that someone might get hurt as badly or worse than me, through not understanding the risks of what we were doing. When, on one day, a group came back chuckling that one of them had almost died when he slipped, but another had grabbed him by the backpack, my heart turned over. I didn’t have any ability to stop people going out climbing, and I certainly didn’t want to – I was keen to get back to it myself as soon as possible – but I wanted to be sure that everyone was doing it with the right attitude. I felt that the knowledge that my friends would keep themselves safe from now on would be the only thing that could give my own suffering any purpose. I began to share my thoughts on the right attitude to have and found that people did want to listen; the experience I had been through seemed to add weight to my thoughts on safety.

I wasn’t trapped in the bunkhouse all week. My strength on crutches had come a long way. On one day, I clipped over the top of the hill behind the bunkhouse and down into Glen Nevis. I found a cemetery and walked among the graves for a while, and cried at the futility of life, which is something everyone should indulge in once in a while. The following day, I persuaded people to take me to Glen Coe and drop me off at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase. Still on crutches, I clattered my way along 10km of the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven, which felt like a great accomplishment. That was two and a half months after my injury, which doesn’t seem nearly long enough given how interminable my time stuck in bed had felt.

The mandatory silly Scotland photo, taken early in the morning before leaving

After the trip, I went back to live in Bristol again, and gradually got stronger. Though I was still frustrated with my aching body and the uncertain extent of my recovery, the underlying doubts were mitigated by having my friends around. My housemates kept me laughing more than possibly any other time in my life, despite the habit they had developed in my absence of binge-watching absolutely awful vine compilations. People in general were really, really kind to me and touchingly told me how happy they were to have me back.

I went back to my comedy society, the Bristol Revunions; we put on a sketch show where I was able to play roles that mainly involved sitting down. We did a standup show where I told the story of my accident, interspersed with the imaginings I had dwelt on of what it might have been like had things gone worse. I loudly thumped my way onto the stage, still on crutches and in my two heavy orthopaedic boots, paused, and said: “I’m going to address the obvious…” I ended the set with a thank-you to my friends in the audience, and suddenly found myself struggling to get the words out as tears formed in my eyes. It probably wasn’t my most hilarious performance.

An emotional standup routine

I began tentatively flirting with Zoë, whom I had started to get to know a bit on the Scotland trip. When that turned into the start of a relationship, I had most of the ingredients for this to have been the happiest time of my life. My outpatient check-ups would occasionally bring me crashing back down to the ground, however. I went along to them with optimism, ready to show off how much I had progressed and hoping for them to agree that yes, I was on track for things to get back to how they were before. They never said that. It was always, “you may always suffer a bit of discomfort; this will always be a bit stiff; you may find you get some arthritis here.”

It’s tricky to remember the timescale of when I phased out my crutches, but fortunately, UBES keeps a calendar of its old trips. In mid-February, I went on a weekend trip to the Lake District where was still using them, and walked up Illgill Head, a small fell in the south-west of the area. In mid-March, I did a two-day hike along the South-West Coast Path, where I strapped my crutches to my backpack just in case, but didn’t use them. I still needed to lie down a lot. After being out doing something for a few hours, my back would get increasingly tired and would complain more and more, but I could tell it was slowly getting stronger too.

A hike on Illgill Head, where we met an old man recovering from a knee replacement by walking the Wainwrights

The dread I had felt that something bad was going to happen didn’t go away. It was repeatedly fed by near misses. One friend slipped while scrambling on Tryfan, but apparently “did a sort of flip” and landed on his feet. My housemate, Ollie, also slipped on Tryfan and dislocated his shoulder. Another friend fell off an unprotected traverse in the Avon Gorge while seconding, swung a long way and hit her head, while her rope sheared almost apart. Losing a friend to a fall was my number one fear in life.

It turned out that Zoë and I had consecutive birthdays in April, so we celebrated with a BBQ on the downs with a big mixed group of friends. We started throwing round a frisbee, which turned into a game of ultimate. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do much running around, but once the game was on, my competitive side took over, and I was running around flat-out despite my weak, dodgy ankle. I was stiff and sore afterwards, but it was wonderful to discover that I could play sports again.

In June, I went for a climbing session at an indoor wall, and was pleased to find that I wasn’t completely hopeless at it. It felt nervy, but I was sure that I could get my head used to it again if I kept going. This didn’t work out, though, because a few days later, I was having a lesson in how to make charcoal and, while trying to cut a small bit of kindling with a full-sized axe, chopped off the very tip of my left thumb. As the instructor was staunching the blood flow with a first aid kit, one of the other guys there presented the axe to me, where the little dome of flesh was still stuck to the blade. “Do you want this?” he asked.

“No thanks.”

“Yeah, we’ll just leave it for the crows,” he said, flicking it into the undergrowth.

I turned up to a couple of parties that evening, with my arm in a sling to protect the thumb from painful bumps. I was repeatedly greeted with looks of “What have you done now?” I tried in vain to persuade people that I wasn’t accident-prone. I hoped I was right.

I can’t remember at all what the dress code was meant to be

Day 23: Old Man River

Sleep is the great healer, but over the past week, I had been giving it a heavy workload. I would go to sleep each night sore and exhausted, and expect to wake up ready to do as much or more walking the next day. Sleep couldn’t keep up, and I found myself a little worse for wear every morning. I was decaying. On the morning of my longest day so far, I was probably starting in the worst condition I had been in.

I was determined though. I would reach Glasgow that night. There was no alternative. We had booked the hostel. Adam had come up with a plan for himself. He wanted to support me as best he could, and didn’t want to hold me back. We would start walking and see how it went. If his feet were giving him too much trouble, he would let me go on ahead and find a way of getting public transport to meet me at the end point.

We set off along the riverside, with damp, grassy fields rising to our right and on the far bank. The weather was fairly neutral; blank white skies and a mild temperature. I had held onto a small hope that we would be able to go a bit faster than the previous night, but it wasn’t long before I was reining in my natural pace to avoid creeping ahead. We went through the Milton-Lockhart estate, which once contained a fine castle until it was moved brick-by-brick to Japan via the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1988 (with the permission of Mikhail Gorbachev) by Japanese film star Masahiko Tsugawa. Lockheart Castle is now the centrepiece of a medieval European town and “Lover’s Sacred Ground” two hours’ drive north of Tokyo.

After 8km, we stopped for a break in a wood. “How are you feeling about the next 32k?” I asked Adam, in a quippy tone but with a serious question behind it. “Not great, to be honest,” he admitted. We worked out a plan. If Adam was left to go at his own pace, he’d be all right getting to a station near Motherwell, and he’d go on by train and meet me at the hostel. I gave him my part of the tent to lighten my load a bit, and he gave me the snacks he was carrying. We wished each other luck, and I set off ahead at a renewed pace, driving myself forward with my poles, despite my perpetually hurting feet.

Cambusnethan Priory – it has an interesting spread of reviews on Tripadvisor

I passed a creepy ruined priory that had been colonised by jackdaws, then, a bit further on, came across a group of youngish lads working on a farm. I guess finding any excuse to take a quick break from their digging, they shouted over to ask what I was doing. I always carry a slight worry that after hearing three words come out of my mouth, people will assume that my natural state is hunting pheasants with young men in barbour jackets called Hugo and Hector, and therefore possibly despise me, but I tried to rise to the level of banter. This wasn’t easy when I had two or three people asking questions at once and other voices swapping jokes with each other. They took some convincing that I had actually walked there from Wales, but most of them believed me in the end. They gave me a donation for my pot, and I went on with a smile on my face. Adam said he passed them too and backed up my story.

No trunk, no problem

I had spotted on the map that the Walkway passed through Baron’s Haugh Nature Reserve ahead, which I was looking forward to, but when I got there, the footpath was closed off, and I had to find another way around. Instead I went through some cow fields where some trees were showing amazing resilience, growing healthily despite their ruined trunks. A kilometre further on, I passed under the impressive, looming arches of a viaduct at least 50m high.

I respect the hell out of this tree

Another couple of kilometres, and I was out into Strathclyde Country Park, following the path alongside the bustling loch. There were walkers and joggers, rowers and fishermen. It took the best part of an hour to reach the far end, where I sat on a bench and ate. I was worn down. I realise I’ve been saying this constantly, in several different ways, but it was how I felt. I seemed to be perpetually being worn down without ever hitting rock bottom. The burst of speed I had put on after leaving Adam was long gone. Bursts of speed didn’t make any real difference unless they could be sustained for long periods of time, and that no longer seemed possible. I also had had the last of the enjoyment I had managed to eke out from points of interest along the way. It was all about finishing this now. I checked my map. I had done just under half the distance.

I passed under the M74 and over the river. The Clyde Walkway followed a road for a bit, but I then failed to find where it turned back towards the river. Looking ahead, I could see that it meandered, so I might even be better off taking a more direct route though Blantyre; as I said, I wasn’t enjoying the scenic walk any more, so I didn’t feel I would miss out. I passed through the town and turned north to meet the Walkway again where it left the river and followed a road. It started to rain, and I sat on my bag for a while under my umbrella, feeling sorry for myself and eating biscuits. The only positive was that, knowing I would be able to charge my phone that night, I didn’t have to be careful with the battery and could listen to music and podcasts.

The next section was unpleasant; a pavement-less road where I had to avoid getting splashed by the regular cars. The light was starting to fade, and I hoped they could see me well enough through the rain. I took another break in a bus shelter. I tried to find songs with a beat that I could match my footsteps to. “Six weeks” by Of Monsters And Men sets a rapid march for a tired man with a heavy load. It’s not sustainable, but for those five and a half minutes, you’re really motoring.

Wide-eyed wanderer

It was dark by the time I reached Dalbeth cemetary. From there, the Walkway stuck closely to the riverside as it meandered. That was unnecessary extra distance. I decided to leave the river and follow a road that went almost directly towards my end point. I was feeling quite vulnerable. I was tired, weak, and not very mobile, and whether it’s well-founded or not, parts of Glasgow have an intimidating reputation, and I didn’t know which parts those were. I had stopped using my walking poles and had shortened them but held onto them. It might have been ridiculous, but there was a comfort in having something to hit or poke potential marauders with.

The last few kilometres were a haze of pain, weariness, wariness, pinpricks of drizzle under orange street lights, and bright advertisements on bus shelters. At long last, I arrived at the hostel. They were expecting me, and Adam was waiting. I dumped my stuff, and he told me that he’d scouted out a pub just a hundred metres down the road. We made a ridiculous sight walking next to each other, both with ludicrous, pained gaits, limping with both legs, tottering like stiff old men. We sat at a table in the corner. I ate too much, and went semi-comatose and a bit queasy. Outside the window, normal city life passed by; people out for a smoke, drunk people laughing hysterically, and girls who surely were no older than thirteen dressed up for a night on the town, arm-in-arm. When I felt slightly recovered, we double-limped back to the hostel, and I climbed precariously onto a squeaky top bunk, and slept.

But what if I don’t want to bang, regardless of how exciting the city is?