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Lisa - our independent adventurer!

If someone had told me two years ago that I would not only walk along but actually finish the West Highland Way, and solo at that, I probably would have laughed in their face; but here I am three months post photo-op with the Man with Sore Feet. So, how did it happen?

I’ve been a science teacher, and a chemistry specialist, for nearly 20 years. The last eight years have been rather rough for various reasons- global pandemic included.

I increasingly used Facebook to avoid work and became an armchair traveller watching Libby Paylor, an ex-colleague, post breathtaking views of her walks. I finally bit the bullet and reached out. She answered almost immediately, passed on the details of Yorkie Talkies Outdoors, and before I knew it, I was booked onto my first walk – Wild Boar Fell in Oct 2021.

I’d never been on a walk like it; there was no view! (I’ve still not seen anything from Wild Boar…one day, perhaps!) I met my friend Deana on that walk too. We chatted for most of the walk and soon started regularly car-sharing.

It was during one of our longer drives when we discussed bucket lists. Walking the West Highland Way was on both of our lists, and we had discussed doing it together sometime in the next few years.

Over the coming months, I became a regular at YTO weekend outings – many will tell you that I can’t shut up (this blog will attest to that!) and have a rather distinct loud laugh, for which I blame my mother.

The changes my body went through during these regular walks, both physically and mentally, were substantial. I kept returning to that conversation with Deana about our bucket lists. I had always wanted to try a marathon and finally started to feel fit enough to attempt one.

Several people in the group had run a marathon before, and the support I received when I struggled with the training kept me going.

When I had some niggles with my knee Emma suggested a visit to Excel Sports Clinic, and they were amazing! I completed the Loch Ness Marathon just under a year after joining the group.

In September 2022, I started at a new school whose academic calendar no longer matched my kids’. I had an extra week of holiday, which I saw as an opportunity to get out alone.

Side note, I’m a bit of a nerd, particularly regarding rocks. At a previous school, some of my chemistry students were also studying geology. I would listen with rapt attention to the stories of their time completing coursework on the Isle of Arran. So, with my newfound extra time, I planned a trip there…my first solo adventure in nearly 22 years.

Only after I booked the ferry and accommodation for the 1st of November did I discover everything on Arran closes for the season on 31/10! My plans quickly shifted from a few museums to nothing but walks and maybe a whisky tour if the weather turned horrific.

After so many walks, I thought I could tackle Arran’s highest peak, Goat Fell, at 874m. By this time, I’d already summited Helvellyn along both edges and even viewed a sunrise from its peak with the group, so I felt reasonably confident. Having walked through a winter with the group, I thought I could handle most of the weather I might encounter.

Moreover, I attended a YTO Navigation course earlier in the year, after which I subscribed to OS Maps. I pored over paper maps, plotted some routes, got incredibly useful feedback about them from Emma, and received encouragement from Emma and Deana and another YTO friend, Karen.

Success!! I discovered that I could plan a solo trip and carry it out! The trip was all I had hoped for and more. I was motivated to get up and see a sunrise and could navigate on the spot to investigate the paths I came across.

I even successfully scaled and got some views from the trig point on Goat Fell. I left the island feeling empowered and with my confidence at its highest in decades! I also discovered that I was fit enough to cope with long, consecutive days of walking. Cue the next holiday that didn’t match my kids’…

My Easter holiday started a week before theirs – the last week in March 2023. Around Christmas 2022, I started looking into the West Highland Way. If there was one thing I learned from my Arran trip, it was that more preparation led to a more enjoyable experience. I started watching YouTube videos of people who’d done it before.

I bought the Trailblazer’s WHW book as recommended in one of the videos (and which became my ultimate bible for preparing) and started devouring blogs. I borrowed the relevant OS Maps from the library to see what was around the Way or alternative stops for accommodation and researched weather patterns to decide the best time of year to go.

I even started – gasp! – a spreadsheet! You know it’s serious planning when a spreadsheet is involved. It was the weather that decided it for me. I wanted to avoid midges and heat. Believe it or not, the average rainfall in that region of Scotland is higher in October than in March. Cue more specific planning.

As this would be my first solo multi-day trek, I didn’t want the extra stress of camping. After going on the Peak District weekend with YTO earlier in the year, I’d had the experience of a bunkhouse, so I was comfortable with those and B&Bs as the way forward. Several were suggested in my ‘bible,’ as well as mileage and timings, so I used it all and began the accommodation search.

Believe it or not, the WHW ‘season’ doesn’t usually begin until the Easter holidays (usually in April), so many places aren’t actually open in late March. I managed to find some, and luckily, most bunkhouses and B&Bs offer a full refund if you cancel within seven days of your arrival date.

I started booking in earnest and noting each on my spreadsheet, including dates, costs, contact and confirmation information, and additional notes like whether or not a towel or breakfast was provided. The only hiccup was booking the Kingshouse bunkhouse in Glencoe, which, for that area at that time of year, was the only accommodation option and was non-refundable once booked. I finally had to talk seriously with my family about my plans in case of any scheduling conflicts (yes, I did a lot of this on the sly…eek!). A few quick scheduling shifts and my accommodation was sorted, with family support for the trek. Next step – what to bring!

Oh, spreadsheets – you are so useful! Same file, new sheet. I created a list of what I might need, starting with the mandatory list from YTO and what I had brought to the Peak District.

Luckily, having been with the group for over a year by then, I better understood my layering needs than I had at the start. On one early outing, we counted I had undone seven zippers as I de-layered!

I also watched the weather forecast like a hawk – highs were meant to be near freezing around Fort William, so I also needed winter kit. Once sorted, Abi, a YTO leader who has walked the WHW, kindly agreed to check my kit list. Her advice to bring more Compeed Blister Plasters than I thought I might need saved the few sore spots that did develop. Also, if I had any random questions about altering the kit list, she was happy to help.

My mother is the queen of packing lightly, and she always advises packing a few days before you plan to leave so you can go through the bag again and remove extraneous items.

I started packing two weeks before departure and found that the pack I was planning to use – my Alpine Lowe 35:45 pack – was ungainly when fully loaded. When comfortable on my hips, the pack's height limited my head movement. I wasn’t happy, so I took advantage of the Go Outdoors sale and got a new bag – a 65L Osprey Renn. I could now carry all I needed with space for souvenirs and maximum head movement.

I packed and re-packed it about five times before leaving, and I still took too much. The advice is true – if you get a bigger bag, you will take more than you need! More than one person I met along the Way thought I was camping due to my pack size!

I’m pretty comfortable packing a bag for a day walk with YTO, but packing for a multi-day through-hike is an art form. Once again, YouTube came to the rescue to illustrate what order to load my kit, where in the bag to pack items so the weight rests on your hips, and how to adjust the straps properly.

Packing a heavy bag (mine was around 11kg in the end!) thoughtfully and with purpose was game-changing. I finally got the knack of it around day three of the hike, and it made such a difference to how I felt both during and at the end of each day.

Once home, I evaluated what I could have left out. Well, I didn’t use my sleeping bag (packed for the bunkhouses whose bedding was provided, but the quality was unknown) or any of the winter gear as the weather weirdly got warmer the further north I walked.

I also didn’t eat much of the massive bag of ‘snacks,’ which alone weighed around 700g – most of what I ate was in my hip pouches from the start!

I took too many thin layers and socks too; I simply didn’t need them. Some accommodations had washing facilities, and my Scrubba Washbag Mini doubled as a dry bag. However, drying facilities were limited, so I had to adjust my standards regarding clean clothes every day. Overall, I reckon I could have reduced my load by around 2.5kg.

That said, I was pretty pleased with some of my kit choices. I’d read that Merino wool is particularly good for trekking in variable weather, so I invested in a Merino mid-layer and a few Isobaa pants. These were lightweight, packed small, dried quickly and were very comfortable.

Merino wool is not the cheapest, but if you can get them in a sale like I did, they’re worth the investment.

At the last minute, I added the anti-chafing stick I’d bought at the marathon in October. This helped prevent hip and bra blisters, particularly on the shoulders. I also invested in a multitool and some rock tape in case I had any joint niggles (which I did). Finally, I brought my Shokz OpenRun earphones for the days when I might struggle and need the distraction of an audiobook to help me get through (which I did).

Despite my mother being a solo traveller, bussing around the southern United States, she was practically apoplectic about me doing the West Highland Way by myself. I can’t say my husband was overly thrilled either. Both insisted I stay in constant contact throughout the journey. The spreadsheet helped hubby, as he knew where I’d be and could contact the accommodation if need be. Mum was kept updated via daily Facebook updates.

Conversely, many colleagues at school, several of whom are involved with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, were incredibly excited for me. They knew I would meet friendly people along the way, and they were right!

With a plan to complete the 96-mile West Highland Way in seven days, I caught the 6:35 am train from York on Saturday, 25 March, and, in a slight drizzle that lasted most of the day, officially started the Way in Milngavie at 11:45 am.

Previous walkers had commented the path here was mostly tarmac and that trainers were better suited than boots, so I wore non-trail shoes, which were brought along as my ‘evening footwear.’

First mistake! The route turned out to be rather muddy, and my shoes were thick with it by the end of the day. Not only that, but I developed sore feet because I hadn’t worn them much before. I also had the start of a blister on my neck from the straps of my new bag rubbing. Great start..ugh!

Once I arrived at my first destination, I found that the bunkhouse I’d booked was full of what looked like a hen party, who told me they had booked its exclusive use (this day just got better and better!).

Luckily, the very apologetic owner had another property and upgraded me to a triple en-suite room for the same price as the bunkhouse. On arrival, I was also treated to a homemade scone and a cup of tea. This is something I found most B&Bs did along the way – cakes and a hot drink on arrival.

That night I enjoyed a pint and a chat with a local at the self-proclaimed oldest licensed pub in Scotland, The Clachan, est. 1734. They even had my favourite cider! Bliss!

Day Two dawned with blue skies and crisp air – my type of walking weather, and I couldn’t contain my excitement.

On my way out of Drymen, I chatted with a jogger going out for “a quick 16-mile out and back, " including a run up Conic Hill. Crazy man! But it reminded me that I was also going up Conic Hill and would see nearly the whole of Loch Lomond and the iconic fault line that runs across it.

The views were breathtaking, particularly as it had snowed on the peaks overnight - my cheeks actually hurt from my permagrin.

As is tradition during any walk, I stopped to take far too many pictures and had to actively tell myself that if I continued doing that, I’d never make it to Rowardennan.

I took my poles out for the first time while trying to take a shortcut off Conic Hill…mistake number 2! It was far too steep and slippery. I ended up ‘butt-scrambling’ – ahem, five points of contact at all times – down. Ugh!

I was soon cheered up though; as I walked through the woods into Balmaha, I saw my first red squirrel!

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur along the loch. At one point, there was a party on the shore that gave off a distinctly ‘Wicker Man’ vibe; I gave them a wide berth, but the campsites were beautiful and worth a return visit.

The end of the day brought me to my first bunkhouse – Ben Lomond Bunkhouse. I *highly* recommend it. There’s no place to buy food in Rowardennan, and my contact there offered to add food to a delivery order I could pay for on arrival; alternatively, there was an honesty kitchen full of food.

It was here that I met many of my fellow WHW travellers. We chatted over dinner and breakfast about our plans and discovered that many of us had similar itineraries; we looked after each other throughout the rest of our journeys. I even had dinner with two – a father and daughter – at the Black Isle Pub in Fort William as we finished the Way about the same time. The support from other walkers throughout the entire journey was immense and heart-warming.

Every blog, video, book and discussion had warned me about Day Three. Not far from the Ben Lomond Bunkhouse, there are path options. I fancied the waterfalls described in my ‘bible,’ so I took the high road along the forestry tracks.

I spied a dormouse near one of the viewpoints, and because the leaves hadn’t yet fully developed, I retained great views over the loch the entire morning.

The cloudless day started well with wide paths and stunning views, but around and north of Inversnaid Hotel, the trail became a bit treacherous in places. Whilst the glorious sunshine provided welcome warmth as the day progressed, it also reflected off the loch and formed innumerable shadows along the path. That, combined with my cataracts and the technical terrain, forced me to slow down to an incredibly slow pace, sapping my energy.

In places, the path was only about eight inches wide…just enough for a foot. Luckily some handholds on the crag wall were easily found, and I used them to keep me steady as I hopped across, but it was tricky due to my heavy pack.

Without my experience with Helvellyn or Scafell Pike, I might have considered giving up. But I’d conquered those, and I would conquer this!

I finally arrived at Inverarnan, nearly two hours later than I’d planned, and discovered that a friend I’d made the previous night, Jackie, had an accident with her bike along this stretch of the trail. She was forced to abandon her attempt at the Way.

Jackie, myself and a few others we’d met along the way had dinner together that night. Jackie berated me for not having used my poles more up to that point, and we exchanged numbers. I kept in contact with her for the entirety of the trip, and we hope to catch up sometime soon. (She has since extracted her bike from the WHW, where she’d locked it to a tree along the sketchy path).

Day three was a day of self-reflection and lessons. I’m stronger than I think I am and *can* do things when the going gets tough; I just need to slow down and deal with one thing at a time. But I also needed to listen to my body more – I wasn’t drinking or eating often enough. I could almost hear Emma’s voice, now Jackie’s, telling me off for this.

In addition, I needed to stop clock-watching. It’s not a race, and I felt like I was missing things by focusing on timing. I also needed to use my poles more, which I did for the rest of the Way.

My favourite part of the journey was days four and five – walking to Tyndrum and then Kingshouse. I’d found my stride (literally, with the poles) and enjoyed so many amazing sights and experiences too numerous to outline here. Those and the emotions they inspired will stay with me forever. More than once, I could hear Deana’s voice saying, “Well, where does that go?! I want to go down there.”, followed quickly by Karen quietly giggling in my other ear.

When heading out of Glen Coe over the Devil’s Staircase, I was reminded of an earlier hike up Helvellyn for sunrise and Emma's pacing, slow and steady, to get a groove. Also, I was more ready and willing to take time for ‘scenic stops’ when the going got a little tough.

The further north along the Way you travel, the more stunning and inspirational the Scottish scenery becomes, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the end was challenging.

Despite a last-minute purchase of gel inserts for my boots at Tyndrum, my poor feet had had enough by the last two days. Despite the rock tape, the tendonitis I’d developed in my right achilles wasn’t helping either. And nothing can properly prepare you for the literal hours of killer downhills, particularly into Kinlochleven.

What kept me going was the support. Sure, strangers along the Way offer mutual words of encouragement, but it means so much more when it comes from people you’ve walked with before and know what you’re capable of.

For instance, Vicky Parker-Smith knows what it’s like to have a heavy pack on your back, and her belief in me was inspiring. I did this trek on my own for various reasons, but Deana and Karen kept in touch throughout my journey and encouraged me at every turn. And the enthusiasm on both their faces when we met up for a coffee and a debrief once I arrived home, melted my heart.

Early on, Deana had insisted I carry a journal and write everything down – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the inspiring. I was reluctant, as it was more to carry, but I did, and I’m so glad. Not only did I note my ‘rose’ and ‘thorn’ for each day, but I also kept track of food and wild wee spots and let loose with a stream-of-consciousness writing I haven’t done in over 25 years. (FYI, there were no good places for a wild wee on the last day, so I literally bore all while trying to hide behind a hillock, forgetting that I was wearing an orange hat!).

While I teach chemistry, I also have a love of history. It’s what brought me to York in the first place – I was awarded a MA in Later Medieval Studies from York University.

Walking provides me with links to the past. I was reminded of that when I joined the Drover’s Road, imagining what it might have been like for those people. And here I was, treading the *same path* they had walked hundreds of years before. Several historical information posts along the Way describe The Battle of Dalrigh, St. Fillan, The Battle of Inverlochy and Kirkton burial ground.

Walking provides so many links to the self, to others (both present and past), to nature and to the landscape – all things I cherish about walking and had forgotten about. Joining YTO reminded me of all that, and I will never forget it. More than that, YTO has given me a bit of me back. I’m not just a mum, a wife, or a teacher. I lost a bit of who I was after my eldest was born and had forgotten that I’m an independent woman who can look after herself.

Quite a few people along the Way were amazed I was doing the trail on my own, and their awe only inspired me to go further, to try more.

I joined Yorkie Talkies Outdoors hoping it would help the mental health issues I was experiencing. But being part of that community has made me realise I’m stronger than I give myself credit for and encouraged me to re-evaluate what I want in life.

Aspirations change for everyone, and I want to accomplish things I’d never even considered before but now have the confidence to at least try.

The long-distance walking bug has bitten me. Within days of returning home, I sought out the TrailBlazer guidebook for the Great Glen Way and have started researching the Hebridean Way.

Overall, YTO has given me lifelong friends and helped me achieve things I never thought I was capable of. I am changed forever and still growing. Thank you!

The Yorkie Talkies team is exceptionally proud of Lisa for going out and getting it done on her own. We know the entire community was rooting for her, as many people asked how Lisa was progressing. She may not think it’s a big deal, but Lisa has inspired many people. We can’t wait to see what she does next.

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4 comentários

20 de jun. de 2023

A really well written and enjoyable read. I felt I was with you on each stage off your journey. Your story is inspirational and will without doubt inspire others.. 🙌


Membro desconhecido
20 de jun. de 2023

Such a great adventure Lisa. Well done 👏


Savie Anna
Savie Anna
20 de jun. de 2023

You are inspirational, I am just starting on solo trips and would love to do the West Highland Way. It was a fascinating read , thank you

Gemma Lumley
Gemma Lumley
20 de jun. de 2023
Respondendo a

She’s awesome is our Lisa 😊

Good luck with your challenge planning!

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