Climbing that goddamn mountain
When it comes to math, arithmetic has always been my thing. When it comes to distances, kilometres and miles, I’m a hopeless case. Tell me something is 1 km away and I’ll just think you said something in Russian. Anywho, so when I glanced at Day 2, which said it was a 29 Km hike with two hills, I did not give it a second thought. How bad could it be? I just aced Day 1, and that was a piece of cake.
Now, whenever I spoke to people who had walked the WHW, the big warning was Day 3. ‘You’ll be fine, but watch out for Day 3. That’s the toughest’. With Day 3 on the horizon, Day 2 would be a piece of pie.
Let me take a moment to tell all those people who spoke about Day 3, that their memories are wrong. Let me tell them all, that Day 3 is a stroll, especially when you’re comparing it to other hikes, like Everest or Kilimanjaro, or, I don’t know, DAY 2 OF THE WHW.
To top it off, I started in pieces. I had charged through the first hour only to find myself in the middle of a field and realised I had left a couple of essentials behind in my B&B, including my torch and whistle (I’m scared of big animals, and also I was a girl travelling alone. Trust me, the whistle was the closest thing I had to a knife).
Half tempted to take the first bus back to Edinburgh and admitting defeat, I walked on through the fields until I reached a valley, with a little stream and wooden bridge. I can do this, I thought, it’s been two hours, and I’m feeling ok. I took this time to call my boyfriend, to reassure him I was doing just fine. While on the phone, I realised the trail was going uphill. I looked up. I’m not joking when I say it was the most vertical path up a hill I’d ever seen. Surely this wasn’t the way. It looked impossible. But then backpackers passed me on either side, grinning, energetic, strong. I cried a little inside. And I began to walk.
I decided then that I didn’t like hills. It’s exasperating to walk looking at your feet, slowly putting one foot in front of the others, until in hours’ time, you look up, and see you’ve advanced a meter. Not to mention you’re carrying a relatively heavy backpack, and for once in Scotland you’re wishing the sun wasn’t shining in your face.
But mercy struck me at the top, when I was sprawled onto the tufts of grass and rock, next to other casualties, and looked over at the entirety of Loch Lomond. It had been worth it. Every damn step.
After drowning a bottle of water, and legs shaking slightly, I started to descend. The path led gently and then steeply down the hill, into a forest, where the trees thickened and hid the sun. I was on a mission to get down to Balmaha village, where I was hoping to find water.
As I finally reached Balmaha, the skies opened. Bi-polar as Scotland is, the weather had turned, and down came the torrential rains. Running for cover, desperate for lunch, I hid in the only place that had a roof. There was a playground with a wooden structure; you know those things on top of slides? Climbed up the rope ladder and took shelter, avoiding the looks of confused children from below.
When the waves of rain ceased, I trudged on, now alongside Loch Lomond, and up a smaller hill, where the views of the Loch could be seen for miles. The roads changed from tarmac, to forest tracks, to beach sand. It was a wonderful feeling to be pressing my feet into sand, by the water, and have the beach to myself.
This terrain continued for a few miles, until finally I was on the road again, admiring little beach cottages and country houses, and the odd walker. It had been a full day, and now the sun was slowly starting to set. I should almost be there…I thought.
But no, 2 hours later, my footsteps growing considerably slowly, I had passed a few campsites, more fields, more countryside track, and was back into another forest. I hadn’t seen people for a while, and that moment of panic struck me. Not because of the lack of people, but because I was suddenly facing one of the steepest slopes that I had ever seen. Slabs of wood were buried uphill, so that the walker presumably wouldn’t slip and plummet into an abyss. In that moment of mental dread and preparation, a young girl suddenly strode past me. In what seemed like a minute, she was halfway up that slope. In the most fleeting small talk, I manged to ask her how her day had gone.
‘Great! I started from Milgavnie this morning!’ she yelled down. I gulped. I’d done Milgavnie yesterday. This Wonder Woman had managed to ace over 40Km in a day. And there I was, legs shaking like jelly, ready to collapse in a heap.
Getting over that last hill came down to reflex (and desire to survive). My mind switched off, I thought of nothing. All that moved instinctively were my feet. Over the hill I went, and through the woods, only to encounter – I kid you not – another hill. I think I was actually crying now, but at least the slope was smoother. I think my legs were numb by now too. My list of mini-goals were no longer important: arriving before sunset, shot-gunning the top bunk, getting in time for dinner, hoping to have a pint.. Now I just wanted to get there – alive.
There are many meaningful people I’ve met in my lifetime, but in the top few is a nameless Scottish local who looked at my broken shell of a body and told me I wasn’t far off from the hostel. He pointed at where I had to go, and gave me words of encouragement to complete the last kilometre. Thank you, kind stranger, I probably would have slept outside your house had you not told me where to go (which is probably why you did…).
Arriving at the Rowardennan Youth Hostel was like arriving in paradise. A red wooden lodge right by Loch Leven, full of tired walkers sharing a chat and a beer in the last rays of sun. Prior to my walk, I had been concerned about looks and hygiene, and how to approach people while travelling around. Now I was too exhausted to think. I sat down with a Dutch group of people and a glass of wine, and tried very hard not to fall asleep in mid-conversation.
Phew! Day 2 was a mission and a half. Has anyone done the WHW way before? What are your thoughts on long-distance walks?
Next stage – I manage to get out of bed and walk from Rowardennan to Inverarnan