‘’Well I don’t know that many who have done it besides it is never always going to be easy to do it self-supported’……..That was back in September 2018.
And so the scene was set after a short innocuous Sunday run idea and inevitable bravado plus optimism from a plan on paper. Ten pin bowling it was. Through beer goggles this was a fine idea! The Winter Solstice was the 21st December 18 and we three would head by train to Fort William for a 1700hrs start south, whatever the weather or Brexit. An almighty TAB to ‘battle’ with one’s mind and the darkness. Even Ant Middleton with his big beard would need a bit of luck on this one.
Peter, Charles (Chuck) and Mark have completed the Race in the summer solstice, over 10 times between them. Pete even as sweeper. A supported, organised and popular event in June. The simple objective to go from Milngavie to Fort William in 35 hours or less. The winter event is an informal self-transcendence affair traditionally attempted in reverse with the inevitable long darkness and variable weather. A further challenge set was to be wholly self-reliant with all kit and food plus have no support team, no friends (not uncommon that……) and no firkin Goblet award (we did have hot choccy, thanks Emma, at the finish, unsupported!). There would be no lovlies to cuddle us at CPs and no ultra bullshiting to suffer.
Food and gear with water was near 12Lb at start
A dram and one beer each on Scotrail (remarkably on time) to celebrate getting to the start trained and we were in a dank Fort Bill for fish and chips. Greasing up my tootsies in Sudocream was not the highlight of the adventure for the Malaysian students opposite. A cold concourse and rather grim news paper stand lady stood between us and the start, pending Hunter en route for a big Tom Kite. The drizzle gave way to rain at the new race finish, the ‘Nevis Centre’. 1703 hours clock start, chippy sloshing we yomped via Morrisons like excited weans.
The sodium orange street lights faded as we ascended the forest track to the Larig Mhor and Kinlockleven, some 14 miles away. 12 to 16Lb of gear and rain showers, feet wet already but good chat and camaraderie set in motion the providence of our plan. It wasn’t cold or snowing. It was going to be epic – tough and rewarding as one journey, one team. One monumental clusterfuck if it went wrong.
Kinlochleven came and went after the big grind out from sea level and we descended the Devil’s Staircase at midnight, the rain showers heavy with big drops dancing across our head torch beams. Occasionally it cleared, and we were greeted below by the blacks and greys of the ominous Glen Coe valley, silhouetted with a full new moon. Rannoch Moor climb at 24 miles in was long and arduous. The decent and run to Ba Bridge majestic under a clearing sky and radiating moon glowing through the high cloud . The moor, vast and water logged sparkled as a glittering carpet before us and we made good time to Bridge of Orchy under shades of silver greys and the odd deer looking rather perplexed! For times we ran with no torches in a special place so remote, so iconic. We did some admin in the Hotel porch and left a pair of socks, sorry. Hunter’s army training saw him dipping his club feet in talc bag standing while I steadied hips up the rear, much to the stare of the artic driver passing at 0415hrs. Keddie napped for five in stealth officer mode.
Admin and a cook out at Tyndrum was our reward at 0615hrs avoiding heating up the petrol pumps. We headed over the ‘roller coaster’ around Crainlarach when after 15 hours the sun decided to finally rise, and it rained some more but not before at dawn, while in a wanton daze of hard ascent, my torch lit Keddie, buttering up his crack and nuts in the middle of the path! The early morning airs were damp and cool as we watched the lonely gritters working the A82 with their isolated flashing orange lights. Tyndrum was cold. The daylight improved our morale a little. Beinn Glas campsite was a short stop and so the technical 15 mile loch side section of crazy paths, wet boardwalk and waterlogged beach. We moved purposefully but just a bit slower to Inversnaid at circa 60 miles, where a cook out on the picnic tables in the rain was the best it was going to get. Not a granny bus in sight. It was pure dreich.
A quick reflection of our fortune and appreciation was had at the Dario Melaragni memorial post, erected in remembrance of a wonderful man who was the race organiser of the West Highland Way Race until his untimely passing in 2009. Briefly the winter sun lit the loch in weak fading light.
Rowardennan came in daylight just at 1541hrs, 69 miles in. Most of the technical sections were now done. The team fought well together, supporting the inevitable drop of morale and hard points of infliction on one, at differing times. As Steve Redgrave said, ”The most important man is the weakest man in the boat’’. Hunter just slagged me off. At this stage it is 90% mental and the rest is in your head. Keeping a positive mind and breaking your ‘chimp brain’ to do what you want to achieve eventually is a constant battle with self. We would start together and finish together, we fought the hardship and the lows and pulled together like much of the enduring training of the military in teamwork. Except, every clunt was pure burst and nagging like over tired girnin weans in a shopping mall.
The colossal Conic Hill. 1830hrs and at 75 miles it was a painful step up and up between showers and cool winds to the summit. The full moon was up again. Night number two and we were 18 miles from home. The islands of Loch Lomond floated out over a full moon on a glassy black sheen of water and we descended rapidly to Drymen, taking turns to be ‘point man’ and keep the pace while Pete enjoyed a popping sound in his feet. A midnight finish was on less any fannying about like a Fling checkpoint with Ray McCurdy hoovering all the freebies. Feet on fire and blisters screaming, we laughed, swore and entered at times a ‘within one self’ tunnel of determination and went quiet in resolve. Everyone used the clunt word and we moaned a lot. The finish was in our sights.
Everything hurts at this stage, pack rubbing, chaffing in obvious places. No injury though, we were hurting ‘well’. We closed rank and pushed each other on, running alternative ‘point man’ through the valley floor of Strathblane. Bobbing torches, every step was a step closer…. (to staying friends). Breaking the final legs into small goals of achievable. The rain was off, a cooler night and 88 miles in we yomped through the Beach Tree Inn gate finding puddles to cool the feet. It was 2159hrs, no time to slow or take in a pint. In a final push we clambered up and out of the valley floor to Carbeth where the outside tap allowed dehydration to be managed. WTF is the tap? The mind was playing tricks at this stage and a little hallucinations were common. Mark remarked on the portacabins on the horizon (clouds) and Pete spotted all the small kids toys scattered in the path (leaves).
Everyone was right on the edge now, a little anxious talk: within emotional dialogue, hanging onto very personal reasons to do this jaut. We ran slow and awkward on path past Loch Craigallian. Fighting the pain and fuelled on the thought of beating the fear of failure our spirits lifted. This was just like the Fire Road and Braveheart Carpark gig but no illuminated 30 sign.
Reminded by the quote, Nelson Mandela, ”It always seems Impossible until it is done’’, we picked up pace as we passed the Milngavie Library and the street lights came in view. Head torches off we stepped out in exaltation, quickened the stride, pain no more. Now we graced each other with a smile of true respect and absolute appreciation – we had done it together.
Providence and perseverance prevailed. A light of foot shimmy down the precinct stairs and the underpass was behind us together with near 96 miles of challenge. We hugged, I had a wee cry and Bella the dug went absolutely mental.
30hrs and 52mins later we were at home in Milngavie. There were a few more tears, hugs and little left, but we were done (and done right in). The 2018 Winter Solstice was completed. 16,000ft (?), 23 hours of darkness, rain and a lot of it, a few scars that will heal but memories and friendships that will last for a lifetime. Our journey of unsupported, self-reliance from a new race finish became an exclusive reality earned. We stayed mates too! Helen and Emma met us with Aurel and we were greeted with best wishes, hot chocolate and whisky. Thank you.
We just needed to survive Christmas Day now but imminently important, pour another small dram and toast the Solstice of 2018 under a new full moon. It was just an epic adventure we dared to dream.
All times are departure.
Journey splits WHW solstice reverse: Dept Fort Bill 1703, Kinlochleven 2122, Glencoe 0044, Bridge of Orchy 0418, Tyndrum 0613, Beinn Glas 1027,Inversnaid 1321,Rowardennan 1541, Balmaha 1829, Drymen 2114, Beechtree 2159, Milngavie Arr 2352. Total: 30 hrs 49 mins. #teambygon
A postscript thought on Providence.
William H. Murray, author of The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1951).
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.