West Highland Way Cycle
& Ben Nevis

Sunday 15th - Thursday 19th February 2015

Weather/Conditions: Wintry all the way...
Distance/Ascent/Time: 217.5km / 3400m / 5 days
Accompanying: Andrew & Sofie

I'm not the biggest cyclist in the world, it's not something I do often. My friend Andrew is bigger on his cycling, and has been all over the world on trips. The previous year we'd done an autumn West Highland Way, but I could only join Andrew for one full day. In the end, I left him at Tyndrum, and he turned around in a snow storm on Rannoch Moor.

So we decided to head back and give it another try. This time, I could commit to the lot. Andrew had met Sofie once before, and invited her from the Continent to Scotland for a WHW cycle and a walk up Ben Nevis at the end.

Day 1

I went out to Tanyas to meet Andrew and Sophie, where they had spent the night. The start of the West Highland Way was very nice, not much like the wintry trip it would become further north. We cycled out by the Campsies to Gartness, then joined the cycle track to Balloch. It's all a very soft landscape, and nice to cycle through with the Highlands appearing on the horizon.

It was a 'West Highland Way cycle', but we swapped to the west bank when we found out the Rowardennan to Tarbet boat had stopped for the winter. After a break in Balloch for food, the west bank was a good cycle. Nearer toward Arrochar the cycle track becomes the old road around Firkin Point, which closely resembles the current road north of Tarbet. But now there is no traffic on this one, the modern road having migrated shortly up the hill. We pedalled into Tarbet and got food in the cafe here. In the afternoon, we had the 'Tarbet road' to contend with. It is not pleasant! The highlight was having a bus trying to overtake on a blind bend at which point a car came around the corner... Anyway, we reached the Drover's without a scratch and got some food here. We rejoined the West Highland Way to follow it into Glen Falloch. At some point, Sofia got a puncture and if I remember right the pump would not reinflate the new tyre. We flagged down a car on the A82, nearly causing an accident but the less said about that the better! We managed to get the bike sorted again, somehow, and followed the WHW into the glen in growing dark among a profusion of new hydro tracks. We joined the A82 for the last miles into Crianlarich and then to the Youth Hostel.

Day 2

Day two would take us most of the way to Fort William. We left Crianlarich on a damp morning and followed it north to Tyndrum, stopping for a break, then Bridge of Orchy. I felt I'd probably not want to walk the WHW again; doing it by bike was just the right pace between new scenery and tediousness (!).

After a drizzly start, the skies opened up on the stretch across Rannoch Moor. This was stunning, to get away from the road, have the hills of the Black Mount around us, and just the miles to cover on the bike. As usual, the descent toward the ski centre was rattly on my old mountain bike - but no complaints because I'd only just bought it from Andrew for £10.

Conditions felt pretty cold and wild at the Kingshouse, and we felt we had a decision to make. We probably wouldn't get over the Devil's Staircase before darkness, and the summit of the pass was clogged by snow. Instead, we traded the high pass for a gentle, winding descent into Glen Coe. The Buachaille and Aonach Eagach spires seemed incomprehensible, and the quiet A82 was a joy to ride: downhill all the way, with the enveloping darkness and wild mountains around.

At the Indy Hostel, Keith hadn't any hostel beds available, but was very generous with a caravan when we explained our last-minute change of plan.

Day 3

The final day to Fort William: we left on another grey morning, first stopping in Carnach, then for the main road to Kinlochleven. The miles were pretty easy, all on the road. We followed the West Highland Way steeply out of Kinlochleven, then cut back right on tarmac to Mamore Lodge. I did this section in one 'go' on the bike, and got an anaerobic burn so hard that you don't really recover for the rest of the day.

From here, the lairig to Fort William was on more of that typical WHW bumpy terrain. Another grey day, another quiet glen. Again, I don't know if I'd have so much patience to walk all this: the pace on a bike was perfect. Around the head of the glen, we dropped into forests and in grey drizzle descended steadily into Glen Nevis, and the end of the West Highland Way at Fort William. That night we booked ourselves into the Backpackers Hostel.

Day 4

The following day was relentlessly wet, which was as well as it was our rest day in Fort William. We just had a day around town, the furthest we walked was to the climbing wall at Calluna - I was glad to pull on again after a few days just cycling! Other than that, the rain tipped out the sky without pause, not a bad day to stay inside.

Day 5

This was the culmination of our trip, a walk up Ben Nevis which was would also be a first for Andrew and Sofie. The freezing level had risen dramatically with the previous day's rainfall. Then during the night it had dropped, making Ben Nevis an ice rink with all the thawed snow suddenly frozen hard.

We cycled into Glen Nevis and left the bikes by the Youth Hostel. The lower parts of the hill were dry, but even here the weather felt a bit wild. It often does, but you just swallow the feeling of heading up into the storm, and keep going. The half way lochan had ice floes in it, and I explained the forthcoming mountain to Andrew and Sofia. I showed Andrew pacing as we headed toward the first zigzag, and from there always kept a close eye on location.

We walked up into a different world, the snow thickened and visibility decreased. A constriction of two 10m contours by the eigth corner is a useful location marker in a whiteout, both going both up and descending. I followed our progress up the zigzags to the top where they disappeared under the snow. Then I took a careful bearing and struck off toward the summit. The new cairns are really quite useful! As one disappeared from sight, another would come into view ahead and it made the whole business a lot easier than it would otherwise be. The only 'moment' was changing direction for the last 150m to the summit - there I lost pacing count, unfortunately at a critical moment. We changed direction, and appeared on the summit a moment later!

The top didn't feel like a place to linger, but I'd so enjoyed the intense concentration of taking bearings, working out position and holding nerve.

The descent was easier; perhaps because I'd done it with Tom Lawfield the previous year. Take one bearing to the junction at 150m, then take a 282 bearing and walk straight off! Easy compared to going up, I thought.

The rest of the day was easy, we descended under kinder skies to the bikes, then out to the backpackers hostel for one last night there.

The following day was home time, and we woke up to find piles of fresh snow on the hills, prominently on Druim Fada. At last light we took the train south to Glasgow.

An unconventional trip for me, and in brilliant company.

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 8.20am Glen Nevis YH
(3.10) 12.30pm Ben Nevis
(7.00) 3.20pm Glen Nevis YH
Written: 2017-11-27