Day 67: Buachaille
Tyndrum to Glencoe Mountain Resort. 18.1 miles. Miles to date: 1017.7.
In 1956 Philip Rankin had a dream. He would build the first commercial ski centre in Scotland.
Years before, the Glasweigan's Mosquito had been shot down as he'd returned across the English channel after a WW2 sortie. He'd ejected before impact but his back was a wreck. During treatment at Stoke Mandeville Hospital a Canadian doctor suggested skiing might aid his recovery.
The sport was to become his obsession.
Not just skiing – “I was never more happy in my life than the day I threw my bowler hat over the suspension bridge into the Clyde and took to the hills," he said of his vision to create a home for Scottish skiing.
So he founded the Scottish Ski Club and spent every weekend scouting the heights for the perfect site: "An ample corrie deeply scored with ravines which collect such a mass of snow as to be virtually impervious to even weeks of thaw”.
Eventually he found what he'd been seeking: the Meall A’Bhuiridh massif that stands above Glencoe. There followed half a decade of cajoling, hectoring, fundraising and, critically, building – hauling cables, cogs and wheels up the mountain with the help of volunteer Glaswegian dockers until his chairlift rose from the moor.
He had promised not to marry until his lift was built – and he stuck to his word.
So it was that in 1955 the first ski centre in Scotland opened. It was to kick-start a national obsession and a £30 million industry.
Philip Rankin died in March, aged 99. There’s a beautiful portrait of him on the wall of the café in the ski resort he built and that I’m staying in.
I’ve bedded down in some remote places on LeJog. Warren Farm in a lonely Exmoor backwater. Langdon Beck in the upper reaches of the Tees Valley. But at 1,250ft this tops them all: the Glencoe Mountain Resort on the edge of Rannoch Moor and in the shadow of the mighty rock tower of Buachaille Etive Mor – The Great Herdsman of Etive – one of the most photographed mountains in Britain.
There’s a pool table, a café serving haggis baked potato as a special and ski lifts that'll take you all the way to 3,600ft.
It’s here, in a little hobbit cabin, that I will rest, after eight days and 150 miles of walking. Both physically and mentally it’s been the toughest stretch of LeJog so far.
Time for a break.
Buachaille Etive Mor: what a mountain.
The day started with breakfast – although it nearly didn’t.
I had known breakfast wasn’t included in the price of my hotel booking.
But given how dreadful it all was, I felt that the £63 they’d robbed me of at least merited a bowl of muesli.
So I wandered into the breakfast room and helped myself to grapefruit segments.
Before I could tuck in a young man asked me if I'd paid for breakfast.
I explained that I’d paid for the room.
What about breakfast?
No. I hadn’t paid for breakfast.
Would I like to?, he asked.
Not really, I replied. The hotel and room had been below expectations, so could I have a free breakfast, please?
He would, he said, have to fetch the manager.
The manager came out.
“Hello sir. Is there a problem?”
Yes, I explained. I hadn’t been happy with my stay and thought that in compensation I might get a few free grapefruit segments.
“What specifically was wrong?”
There was no point in listing all the issues. I had 18.1 miles to walk and didn’t want a late start.
“Yes. The television only played BBC2 and the shower was flacid.”
“Yes. More of a dribble than a jet.”
“I see. I will have to go and test it.”
“Sure. It was cold as well.”
After five minutes she returned.
“I didn’t find the shower to be flacid, sir.”
“No. But it did feel... cool.”
“Does that mean I can have a free breakfast?”
“It does. This once.”
I returned to my grapefruit segments feeling pretty good about the world.
Leaving Tyndrum. Low-lying clouds had settled overnight.
The track follows the road and railway for the first few miles. The scenery was still spectacular.
The West Highland Way follows the Old Military Road down towards the Bridge of Orchy. The cloud-topped mountain on the right is Beinn Dorain.
Today was the day the West Highland Way finally showed its mettle.
Before now it’s been an enjoyable walk – it’s hard not to love Loch Lomond in the sun - but nothing extraordinary.
Today that changed, as it stepped up a gear, the trail leaving the road and railway behind as it entered the big mountains – and boy, was it good.
As you leave Tyndrum, still on the old military road, there are hints of what lies ahead. Beinn Odhar, towering above, was lost in cloud, high-up crags echoing with raven cries.
Every mile opens up new side valleys – giving ever more tantalising glimpses of faraway valleys and peaks. Early on Glen Corrolan, leading to the watery wilderness around Loch Lyon. Later, after crossing through remote and rundown Bridge of Orchy – school closed, fire station fronted by a trashed car – the hills of the Black Mount and above Glen Kinglass. And somewhere up the back there is the Lost Valley, where the MacDonalds of Glen Coe hid their rustled cattle – a hanging valley that is only accessible to those with a love of rock and a head for heights.
As the trail leaves the isolated hamlet of Inveroran – in winter this must have an end-of-the-world feel – the scale increases yet again. Peaks of all shapes line the horizon, hidden cols throwing down waterfalls, scoured aretes stalling the eye.
With sunshine starting to break through and the cloud level lifting above all but the highest peaks I was starting to have a ball of a day. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Scotland, but never seen the mountains so clear for such a long period.
What’s more, my blisters – as I pass the LeJog 1,000 mile mark – are pretty much gone. I’m racing along the old drove road, stopping only to take photos and drink in the sweet mountain air and ever-changing views. The spring in my step is back.
The Bridge of Orchy.
The day saves the best for last.
First there’s Rannoch Moor: the 50 square mile bog that is considered to be one of the last remaining European wildernesses. From above it's a wasteland of water and marsh stretching to distant hills on a scale that's hard to process; lorries, coaches and cars creeping across the overbearing wild on the incongruous A82. It’s not the kind of place to break down on a stormy night.
And then, as lonely King's House comes into view, Buachaille Etive Mor (3,350ft) suddenly rears at the head of Glencoe.
It hits you hard: a towering rock pyramid of layered crags and buttresses, scarred by rockfalls and fractures. A thing of raw and austere beauty that stops you dead in your tracks. I’m bowled over by it. So are millions of others. It is probably the most photographed mountain in Scotland – the poster Munro of a thousand calendars and postcards, and the jaw-dropping Highlands introduction to pretty much every coach entering Glencoe from the south.
I am finally in the company of giants, as I will be for the next week.
Philip Rankin was not only a skiing visionary, it turns out, he also had fabulous taste in mountain scenery.
Not so much as a one-road town, as a one house hamlet: Inveroran. (Not to be confused with Inveraran).
Lovely Loch Tulla, Black Mount behind.
The WHW looking back at the Grampian Mountains.
Grampians above Lochan Mhic Pheadair Ruaidh.
Easy walking on the old drove road.
Black Mount over the marsh.
Stob Ghabhar & Stob a'Choire Odhair. Not easy to namedrop these mountains.
The A82 crosses Rannoch Moor.
You turn the corner and... wham... there's Buachaille Etive Mòr.
Buachaille Etive Mòr – aka the Buachaille or, for those without any Gaelic, The Buckle.
Home for two nights. My casting as Frodo a few weeks back seems to have been a premonition. It didn't come with any bedding (and nor have I), which presented something of a problem.
Next: Day 69 – Glencoe Mountain Resort to Kinlochleven.
Previous: Day 66 – Ardlui ferry to Tyndrum.