Despite living with invisible illnesses, Kris Hallenga and Gail Muller teamed up to take on Scotland’s West Highland Way. Along the way they raised much-needed funds for breast cancer charity Coppafeel and vital awareness of the fact that the outdoors and adventure, big or small, is for everyone. Scroll on for Gail’s first-hand account of their experience and the freedom, fun and life-affirming friendship they found along the way.
Sweeping epic mountain views, expanses of silvery water and stunning wildlife? Hiking along Scotland’s West Highland Way can deliver all this and more, right here in the UK. I’ve just returned from my excellent week walking 96 miles of the well-trodden WHW trail from Milngavie to Fort William. Let me tell you about the highs, lows and adventures on the way.
The West Highland Way is now 41 years old. It first opened as an official hiking trail in 1980, after being dreamed up by ex-RAF serviceman and avid hill-walker Tom Hunter. Hunter was a Glaswegian who, as well as loving to hike, want to protect various sections of his planned WHW route from development, specifically the eastern shore of beautiful Loch Lomond which the trail now sits beside. The WHW route was surveyed through the 1970’s, and in 1974 permission was given for the trail to be created. It officially opened in late 1980 and has been enjoyed by countless walkers and outdoor enthusiasts ever since. Approximately 85,000 people hike sections of the Way each year, and 30,000 per year walk the entire route! It’s busy and popular, but happily for Kris and I we didn’t meet the huge crowds of hikers we were expecting, and enjoyed much of our time walking relatively solo.
We planned our route and gear carefully over a few weeks prior to leaving. Both coming out of lockdown and managing different invisible and chronic conditions, we had to consider our different levels of experience and stamina and how we could break up our days to best suit our needs. It was important that I didn’t try to push Kris to hike too far and fast and took into account the rest and recovery that might be needed.
People typically take between 7-9 days to hike the West Highland Way, depending on whether they stop to explore on the way. There’s definitely plenty of beautiful extra spots to discover, whether it’s a day swimming on the shores of the Loch or a hike up beautiful Ben Lomond! We decided on 8 days, with 4 longer days at the beginning when I knew we would have the most energy followed by some shorter days as we moved into bigger mountains and vistas.
I expected the route to be extremely busy, and though I was excited to go I was worried that we would miss some of the elements of multi-day hiking that make it so special; communing with nature quietly, feeling peaceful and still and getting to step away from the bustle of other people. With lockdown easing but overseas travel off the cards, it made sense to me that keen outdoors folk and those just beginning to explore the outdoors would throng to beautiful Scotland and it’s most popular, well known trail. But we were pleasantly surprised to find the paths only lightly dusted with hikers. On many occasions we hiked ahead of some and fell behind others, so that we were the only people we could see in the stunning scenery, capturing long moments of that blissful isolation we sought.
Of course, we met some characters along the way, such as the ultra-runners of the 96-mile West Highland Way ultra-marathon on Day 2. By the time these athletes passed us along the shores of Lake Lomond they had been running for over 30 hours, hobbling and wild eyed, keen for the next feed station. Some welcomed the chance to stop and chat, and others just blurted out requests for directions and reassurances that a rest stop was coming soon. All were incredibly impressive, as the weather was FAR warmer than any of us had anticipated.
In fact, alongside the crowds we had also anticipated rain, but it didn’t show up. It seems rain is synonymous with Scottish hiking, but not this week! We arrived in bright, hot sunshine, and high temperatures which stayed with us for days. This was a great result, but we quickly realised we’d packed more for cold and wet than hot and sweat, and wrestled out our solitary vest tops and the ‘we probably won’t be needing these’ shorts to cope with the rising temps. We soon adjusted and it was gorgeous to see the Loch sparkling in the sunshine. We took a dip in the warm air to cool off, although quickly realised with a gasp that the warm weather hadn’t heated up the water all that much! Refreshing though and much appreciated once we got used to it, with our cackles and laughter making it all the more fun.
We did get some of the challenges we had expected: sore feet, midges and tiredness. Alongside bodies of water the midges swarmed, especially as there had been rain and now we were hiking in this warm spell that followed, meaning that all the newly hatched midges in the damp humidity were hungry and keen to feast on us. In the evenings by our tent, we yanked our midge nets over our heads and swatted the wee beasties from our skin, splashing on the ‘Smidge’ and hoping for the best. I react badly to mosquito and midge bites, so I also slathered the trusty Tiger Balm on all and any of my itchy bumps which helped keep me sane. Midge bites weren’t the only physical peril we encountered however, as Kris’ feet took a bit of a battering. She soldiered on valiantly through blisters and bleeding toes though, bandaging everything up each morning and making it through to the end of the day like a trouper.
This was the shape of our week:
Day 1: We arrived and started hiking at noon from Milngavie to Drymen. (12 miles)
Day 2: Drymen to Rowardennan, where we stayed in a beautiful hostel alongside the Loch – (15 miles)
Day 3: Rowardennan to Beinglas. This was a tough day along the undulating Lochside path. (14 miles)
Day 4: Beinglas to Pinetrees. A hot day but pretty, our first day away from the Loch. (12 miles)
Day 5: Pinetrees to Inveroran. A stunning hike through a valley beside the railway line, seeing the opening up of the hills amidst deeper greens towards the Bridge of Orchy. (9 Miles)
Day 6: Inveroran – Kingshouse. One of my favourite days across Rannoch Moor and the approach to Glencoe. Wild and wide-ranging moor and mountain views and a good path! (10 miles)
Day 7: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven. (9 miles)
Day 8: Kinlochleven to Fort William. What a beautiful final day. The elevation out of Kinlochleven was fairly long, but then we hiked into a stunning valley path between mountains and pines the whole way to Fort William and the end of the trail! (15 miles)
No matter how many times I go on long hikes I still learn more about myself. It’s always surprising how much there is to reconcile when I’ve been away from deep nature for a while. This hike was the first time since the latest hard lockdown that I’ve been out for a multi-day adventure and wow did I feel strange to begin with. Firstly, my body wasn’t as fit and flexible as it had been previously. This was possibly to do with being perched in front of a computer in my house writing a book and holding meetings, rather than whizzing about like usual. It was hard feeling less fit initially, but I won’t be alone in knowing my body has changed in the last six months! What this hike helped me remember is that my body loves to move, and even though it’s a little heavier than before and took a moment to get used to what I was asking from it, it rallied and realised it was doing what it loved.
More surprising to me was how challenging it was for my brain to cope with being out of the lockdown routine. Things like working to time, chatting with strangers and being super flexible with what might come up next en route etc – these were very hard for me to get comfortable with at first after living in such a ‘penned in’ way for six months or more. I learned to forgive myself for finding it hard moving back into physical and mental freedom, and that self-kindness allowed me to relax into it all much more quickly. I imagine others might struggle with this return to exploration too, so I wanted to mention it to reassure you that you’re not alone, and it passes! It just takes your mind a moment to catch up with easing back to renewed fun and freedom amongst more people, and the hustle and bustle of life again!
Hiking with some fresh pain in my body was hard initially, as the last time I was on a trail like this in late summer last year (the South West Coast Path) I was relatively pain free. But I knew that I deserved to be out there, and that my chronic pain will always ebb and flow. I know how to work with it and recognise it’s just in a ‘flare’ and with the right stretching, exercises and recovery as I go back to hiking longer distances, I’ll be a-ok. I’m definitely on target to be feeling great for my upcoming epic 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail hike!
I was constantly amazed at Kris and her ability to persevere through her first multi-day adventure. She fielded every obstacle, taking her cancer meds morning and evening, bandaging up her damaged feet and swatting away midges with a beaming smile in the face of all adversity. Sure, there were moments we both cried. There were tough times and there was frustration at our bodies and the path. But through all of this there was friendship, love and mutual admiration, as well as the ability to make up silly songs and dance out our woes under the gaze of mountains and meadows. Hiking with someone else next to me all day was something I’ve never done before, but it was a superbly uplifting experience and a huge gift. We raised each other’s spirits, embraced the challenges we faced together and lifted what was already a stunning hike into a life-affirming journey of friendship, self-confidence and gratitude.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Great Outdoors has something to offer us all and we have so much work to do to preserve and protect it, as well as educate and encourage all kinds of people to access it and experience its power. It helps us heal body and mind, and also has the ability to winkle out the fears and anxieties we have, holding space for us to work through them. For us, whether the sun shone, or the mists came rolling off the hills, we were happy. Happy to be using our bodies, forging deeper bonds of friendship in the outdoors and deeply grateful to know that this symbiotic relationship between ourselves and nature exists on our doorstep, all around us wherever we live. We just need to head outside and embrace it, one step at a time.