24th May 2008 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 10.5 miles
Synopsis: A glorious, but frustratingly short walk into Glencoe along a narrow, rocky track then a short, sharp ascent of the Devil’s Staircase. A few quiet miles along rocky paths across rugged mountainside precede an often steep but smooth access road into Kinlochleven
I think the best thing I can say about the Kingshouse Hotel is that it was average. It excelled at nothing, apart from its location. I slept little during the night and woke early; the bed was extremely lumpy, it felt like I was sleeping on broken bricks and the curtains did little to keep the light out of the room, so I was almost awake with the dawn. Breakfast at the Kingshouse is extra, on top of the room rate, and you pay more for a cooked meal than you do for the continental buffet. Based on the very average meal the previous night I decided not to spend the £7.50 they wanted for the cooked breakfast and instead made myself a cup of tea in my room and ate some of my flapjacks.
It was still early and I was undecided on what to do about the walk today. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of the hotel guests would be heading for Kinlochleven, a bare 9 miles away, so the path was likely to be busy if I left too late. If I left early though, I was likely to be in Kinlochleven before lunch time. The peace and solitude I’d enjoyed on the previous day was very appealing, it was great to walk for miles without meeting another soul. That swung it for me and I packed my kit quickly, went to reception to pay my bill and walked out into the cool morning air. It was only 08:00.
I needed my fleece at the start of the walk, it was quite chilly and although there was some sun on the hills at the other end of Glencoe, there was none at this end of the valley. The cloud base had lifted slightly since yesterday, but it still just about covered the top of Buachaille Etive Mor. There was no-one in sight ahead of me and only a few campers moving about by the hotel. Only the road gave off any sound and even that was muted at this time in the morning. The air was beautifully still and I walked slowly along the path soaking in the atmosphere.
After just a few minutes I left the tarmac drive of the hotel and joined the narrow, stony path that runs close to the road and between the impressive peaks at the head of Glencoe. Buachaille Etive Mor is, of course, the majestic eminence that constantly draws the eye. More people must have stumbled carelessly along this section of path, for staring at this mountain, than I care to imagine. My pictures do it no justice at all, so I encourage you to take a drive out there and see it for yourself.
As you progress along the path, the views down Glencoe open up. The Three Sisters; Beinn Fhada, Gearr Aonach and Aonach Dubh are just about visible in the distance, but are mostly obscured by Buachaille Etive Beag, the sister and closest neighbour to Buachaille Etive Mor. The fearsome eastern rampart of this mountain, topped by the Munro of Stob Dearg, was gradually replaced by views up the Coire na Tulaich as I drew nearer. This is a much more achievable walking route up the mountain. I could see people on the path at its foot already and the path was clearly visible all the way up to the summit. I made myself a promise that I would return here very soon to climb through the corrie and onto the summit. (Update: I did return, the walk report is here)
The car parks beneath the Devil’s Staircase were already filling with cars and there were a lot of people milling about. There is a private climbing bothy at the foot of Buachaille Etive Mor and that was also discharging walkers onto the paths. Despite my early start I was far from being alone on the hills this morning.
I watched a group of four walkers ascend the path towards the Devil’s Staircase and they were followed a couple of minutes later by a group of about 12, I followed a few minutes behind them both and joined a rather disjointed caterpillar as it climbed its way up the steep section of hillside that leads to the highpoint on the West Highland Way. For a walk that runs through some of the biggest scenery in the UK, a highpoint of approximately 1800 feet is nothing to get excited about.
The Devil’s Staircase is supposedly much feared, at least according to my guidebook and indeed I had heard one or two people in the bar the night before talking in slightly worried tones about the climb ahead of them. The climb consists of 850 feet of ascent over 1 mile of footpath and I’d already done more than twice that height gain over the same distance a few weeks earlier up Red Pike, so it held no worries for me. I took it really slowly, not wishing to catch the folk ahead of me on the path and stopped many times to turn round and admire the views.
The top of the Devil’s Staircase is actually a col between two summits, rather than a summit in its own right. To the left, the path zig-zags up to Stob Mhic Mhartuin and to the right is Beinn Bheag. The group of four at the head of the caterpillar dropped down the other side of the ridge and took the path to Kinlochleven. The party of ten or twelve turned left and began to climb the path towards Stob Mhic Mhartuin. They were probably heading for a traverse of the famous Aonach Eagach ridge which was certainly covered in cloud this morning. I had an optional alternative route into Kinlochleven that I could take over this ridge, but the thought of walking in the cloud all day, behind a large group wasn’t all that appealing, so I stuck to the usual route, past the cairn and over the ridge.
Within ten feet of crossing the ridge line the world went deathly quiet. I hadn’t thought the other side of the ridge was particularly noisy, but crossing this watershed was like closing a door on a washing machine in spin-dry mode. The noise from the traffic on the A82 was gone, the wind was gone, the voices from the large group trudging up the hill were gone. I was left with a view down the valley; perhaps two miles of footpath and not a sound to be heard anywhere. I found a rocky outcrop beside the path and scrambled up to sit down on the top for a few minutes. I was a long way ahead of the crowds behind me and I had very little distance still to cover, so I decided to savour these wonderful little experiences.
A moment or two later my reverie was broken by the arrival of three lads, arriving as if by magic from a fold in the landscape, red-faced and puffing silently up the incline, the only noise they produced were the crunch of stones beneath their feet and the deep wheezing breaths they took. We said our Good Mornings, they were off to Bridge of Orchy, a good 21 mile day for them. I, on the other hand, had less than six to go and it still wasn’t 10:00.
The path for the next 2.5 miles is an old military road and it’s more akin to a good Lakeland path, with small stones embedded into a good base with loose stones on top. It made for a better a surface than the cobbles of the Drovers’ road yesterday.
At one point it would normally have crossed a burn flowing down the hillside towards the River Level; the path dipped slightly so as not to impede the course of the water and walkers are provided with stepping stones to keep their feet dry. It was all very artfully done and all completely pointless at the moment. The burn was dry and might have been like that for a while.
I made no ground on the four walkers ahead of me, indeed once they rounded the sloping lower shoulder of Sron a’ Choire Odhair-bhig (which in Gaelic means; “Sloping Shoulder Of Hillside, Covered In Heather And Resounding To The Call Of The Ptarmigan” and if it doesn’t, then it should) I never saw them again.
As I continued, the valley opened up to my right and I got expansive views of Blackwater reservoir, the furthest section of which was brightly lit by sunshine, while the section closest to me was still dark and leaden, reflecting the clouds that hung low above.
I absolutely refuse to complain about the weather so far on this trip. Even though today and yesterday there had been very little views to be had of the big hills, the lack of rain more than made up for this. I was on my sixth full day of walking and still no rain, and no sign of rain today either. Today was becoming warm and pleasant, despite the cloud cover and I was already down to base layer after consigning the fleece to my pack at the top of the Devil’s Staircase.
In fact sunshine seemed to be breaking out all over the place; ahead of me the sky was brightening considerably and if things continued like this I would soon be walking in sunshine…. yeaaah, yeah, yeah… walking in sunshine. (Ha! That’s the curse of Katrina placed on you – you’ll be singing that all day now!)
It’s possible to draw a straight line from this view point to a point 38 miles away to the east without crossing a road of any description. There’s a railway line in the middle of it somewhere, but no roads and no villages for nearly 40 miles. Now that’s impressive in this crowded little island of ours.
The closer I got to Kinlochleven the better the weather got. The Mamores were laid out before me, now mostly bathed in sunlight. Tomorrow would see me skirting the feet of these giants and then swinging around behind them to reach the end of the trail in Fort William. If I had the energy I also had the option of a route that could take me over them rather than around them. On the other hand I’d also prepared the excuses I could use to avoid doing it.
Shortly before 11:00 I got my first glimpse of the outskirts of Kinlochleven and a few moments later I could see the pumping station at the head of the huge water pipes that run down the hillside into the town. This infrastructure is all part of the Aluminium industry that created the town in the first place. The pipes run the water from the reservoir down to a hydroelectric power station, driving the smelter that creates the metal. Or at least it used to. The operation closed in 2000, due mainly to cheap overseas competition, less than 100 years after it began.
The access road that runs from the town up the side of the hill to the Alcan pumping station and beyond, to the dam of the reservoir is what I now followed down into the town. It’s a wide sweeping road that cuts back and forward across the hillside. It had to be wide enough for large lorries and the bends attempt to reduce the incline, but it is still fiendishly steep in places.
My knees were groaning long before I was even half way down. The temperature increased steadily as the height dropped away and the trees that lined the road restricted the views to tantalising glimpses of green hills through the conifers. For about 10 minutes I could hear the labouring of a big engine as it climbed the road and eventually met the owner of the noise as a huge lorry ground its way round a corner ahead of me. The driver waved me to one side, as if to say, “I’m in the lowest gear I’ve got and I ain’t slowing down for you chummy, so step out of the way”. The dust and grit thrown up by the passing truck stuck to my sweaty face and I offered a couple of choice expletives to the driver as he waved to me through his side mirror.
As you would expect, based on what I’ve just described, Kinlochleven is a very industrial town. It’s a steel and concrete obscenity dumped into an area of outstanding natural beauty. You walk into town along the access road, flanked by six huge steel pipes, thrumming menacingly and oozing water; heading for a concrete wasteland scattered with a loose array of long, flat buildings. Many of these are now being converted to other uses, more in line with the desire to turn Kinlochleven into an outdoor tourism centre.
I tried to concentrate on the views of the river rather than the industrial landscape. The River Leven is utterly gorgeous. It’s a very rocky river and not particularly deep, so it’s full of white water sections and little waterfalls, interspaced with sections of dark blue, calm water flowing between trees that grow right up to the water’s edge.
One of the first buildings you reach as you leave the little path beside the river and step up onto the B863 in town is the Tailrace Inn. This was to be my accommodation for the night, but as it was still before noon I had some time to fill before I could knock on their door and ask for my key. So I turned left along the road and walked the short distance in the town centre. A small supermarket, a choice of two cafes and a pub were the only businesses of interest to me. I went into the cafe and as they had no Diet Coke I ordered an Irn Bru – my second favourite soft drink. Here’s an interesting fact; Scotland is the only country in the developed world where the leading selling soft drink is not Pepsi or Coke.
I stretched my legs out under the table and wrote up the morning’s journal, between intense periods of people watching. The cafe was quite busy and there was a steady stream of tourists and locals coming through the door. The food looked good and it was obviously a popular place, so I ordered a chicken sandwich and a plate of chips to go with my Irn Bru. By 13:30 though, I had pretty much outstayed my welcome and as I didn’t really want to order anything else I decided I needed to find somewhere else to hang out until I could get into the Tailrace.
The weather had been transformed while I was topping off the tanks in the cafe. The clouds had lifted, the sky was blue and the sun was shining on what had become a beautiful day. I tried to imagine the landscape I had just walked through, under a blue sky and bright sunshine and almost immediately decided not to torment myself. I still had a full afternoon to spare, so perhaps I should make the most of it.
The previous night in the Kingshouse, one of the 5 Jolly Walkers had recommended the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall as a worthwhile diversion if one had time whilst in Kinlochleven. I found it on the map easily enough and it appeared to be within walking distance, so I headed in the general direction until I found a finger post pointing through a gate. Some thought had been given to walking routes around the falls as there were a number of colour-coded posts marking different routes up the hillside. I had no guide book to tell me what each of the routes involved and there was no information board that I could see, so I picked a red marker at random and followed it up a steep, stony track towards the sound of falling water.
Ten minutes of walking up the steep path produced lots of sweat and heavy breathing, but no sign of the waterfall. If anything, the sound of falling water had receded into a faint hush off to my left. I abandoned the track and let my ears guide me towards the falls. After a couple of minutes of scrabbling through the thin trees that cling to the rocky hillside I caught a glimpse of falling water, mostly hidden by the trees and bushes on the edge of what seemed to be a deep scar in the hillside. I decided to try for a better view point higher up the slope. I panted and sweated further up the hill but go no better view and eventually came out above the scar in the hillside and found a path leading down the other side of the burn. In for a penny, I thought this may lead to a better view of the falls from the other bank.
The path on this side of the burn soon petered out though and I was left hacking my way through deep bracken and occasional bramble patches. All thoughts of views of the falls were now long gone and all I wanted to do was get back to flat ground and a decent pavement. I was, however, rewarded with a splendid consolation view along Loch Leven, the hills receding slowly on each side of the loch and the azure sky above, dotted with the odd remaining white cloud.
I eventually battled my way through the vegetation and found an old, rusty iron gate that just about let me out onto a quiet residential street. I pulled my GPS from my pack and got a fix on my location. Once I’d orientated myself, I made my way back into town and the Tailrace Inn. It was only 14:30, but I pushed my luck and requested my room. To my relief it was ready and although my bag hadn’t arrived yet I still made my way upstairs and took a very welcome shower. The room was quite small, but I had the first en-suite bathroom of the trip so far and the bed was large and comfortable, I liked the Tailrace already.
I heard the AMS van arrive outside my window and once I’d retrieved my luggage from the drop point outside reception I returned to my room and worked my way methodically through the chores we all do on these trips. I read for a while, filled in some more of my journal and then went down for an early tea in the bar. The Tailrace impressed me again in the bar; they have the best jukebox I have ever seen. In fact they have such a good jukebox I couldn’t resist dropping a pound in it and having a go. It’s a real 21st Century gadget with a large touch-screen interface; promising every Top 10 hit since 1950-something, plus thousands of others by leading artists. It’s all possible because of MP3 technology of course, with a search engine to find the artist of your choice quickly and painlessly. I tried one or two of my favourite (but quite obscure) bands and was pleasantly surprised to find them in the list.
Despite being a pub, there was no intrusive noise from the bar to keep me awake that night. The noise that did disturb me came from the floorboards in the landing outside my room. They squeaked along their whole length whenever someone walked along the corridor. That is about all I can fault the Tailrace for though – it was generally a pretty good place to stay.