This consists of the route, and the timing.
The West Highland Way goes from Glasgow (actually Milngavie) to Fort William, predominantly on General Wade’s old military road. There is a map and detailed route description at http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/west-highland-way.shtml although if anything this is a little too detailed – if you read all the way through it you almost don’t need to do the walk!!
The WHW is ~150km and the ‘standard’ timeframe is 8 days. I am following the entire WHW route, with just one diversion up Buachaille Etive Mor. This is a “Munro” (>914m) west of Altnafeadh and the Devil’s Staircase. My aim is to go slightly further than the recommended stage lengths each day so I can make up a day to climb this mountain, then still arrive in Fort William after 8 days. I haven’t chosen stage lengths each day and am tempted to “wing it”, depending on where I can get lunch/dinner and then where I find a nice campsite. This is the start of my walk so until I know how I go I won’t be able to plan too concretely anyway.
The Great Glen Way goes from Fort William to Inverness, mainly along the canal towpaths. Excitingly, two new “high” sections of this walk have just been opened in August 2014. Again, you can find details of the walk at http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/great-glen-way.shtml
They recommend 6 days. I was planning on 4-5, but have decided to skip the first section of the GGW, instead going cross country (back onto Wade’s military road) on the south of the Great Glen to Glen Roy. There are some amazing geological features I want to see there. I’ll then head a bit further east, then north to meet up with the GGW at Laggan.
The hillsides all around Glen Roy have “parallel roads” cut into the hillsides. These are small shelves that exactly follow the contours and look like flat roads have been cut into the hill. They were created when ancient glaciers blocked the ends of the valleys. Water would run into the valleys but couldn’t get out because of the massive walls of ice so they formed lakes, which eroded their shoreline (the flat shelf). As the glacier receded the lake level dropped, creating multiple, parallel, roads.
There are no major hills in this route. More accurately, I’m not targeting any hills in this walk (I do remember drawing an arrow directly over a peak that said 640m!).
A map for both of these walks can (hopefully) be found here:
There is no nice prefabricated map and route description for this walk as it is entirely made up by me. Surprisingly I did find that there used to be a crazy run along a very similar route! http://www.gofar.org.uk/transassyntrun.html
The total distance is ~196km. OK, This is the first time I’ve added it up and it’s a bit further than I thought, but I have allowed 10 days which I still think is achievable. Maybe. Here, approximately, is the plan. Please note, the stages don’t related to how far I’ll be going in a day. This is something I’ll have to work out on the way.
- Ullapool to Stac Pollaidh (612m): 27.3km. Stac Pollaidh started as a typical NW highlands mountain with a gneiss basement, sandstone middle and quartzite cap. Unfortunately it lost its cap and the sandstone is now eroding rapidly giving it a jagged “rotten tooth stump” look. I’ve planned this route to go over Cul Beag (769m) but can easily go around to the north if I want. I’ll probably hit Stac Pollaidh on my second day.
- To Suillven (731m): 14.75km (42km). Suillven is known as the sugar loaf because of its distinctive end on profile.
- To Breabag (815m): 20km (62km). This area is limestone karst country with lots of caves, sinkholes and disappearing streams. Breabag itself is quartzite, reasonably gently sloping on one side with sheer cliffs dropping into glacial cirques on the east.
- To Quinag (3 peaks consisting of Spidean Conich (764m), Sail Gharbh (808m) and Sail Ghorm (776m)): 27km (89km). This mountain is the entire reason for this hike. It is a typical gneiss\sandstone\quartzite mountain although the bulk of the mountain (and the entirely of Sail Ghorm) is sandstone. My route up is the recommended route down . . . my route down is one I’ve made up myself so hopefully is possible. Otherwise I’ll have to double back and come down the east side. I may be able to get some pub food at Inchnadamph on this stage.
- To Ben Stack (721m): 25km (114km). This is rare because it’s made entirely of the ancient basement rock (gneiss). There are also a bunch of granite intrusions at the northern end. I’ll be walking through Kylesku on this stage so hopefully will be able to resupply.
- To Arkle (787m): 11.4km (125km). This (and Foinaven) is made of quartzite sitting directly on top of gneiss (missing the intermediate sandstone layer), where the quartzite has been thrust on top of the gneiss. The quartzite is actually stacked up from the thrusting so you pass the same original “layer” over and over again as you climb (as evidenced by the same fossilised worm signs).
- To Foinaven: 9.5km (135km). This is not a big climb from Arkle as I’m not planning on going all the way to the top. If I can get there, I will. I’m also not sure if my planned route down is possible so may end up having to double back and going around. I couldn’t find any suggested route for this mountain so it’s all my guesses off OS maps and satellite imagery.
- To Rhiconich (town): 11km (146km). This has a pub, and I think that’s all, but I’m sure it will be a welcome sight. This also marks the end of my “mountain” walking.
- To Sandwood Bay: 18km (164km)
- To Cape Wrath: 12km (176km)
- To Durness via Kervaig Bay: 20km (185km)
Here (hopefully) is a link to the route on Google Maps.
Also, here are my elevation profiles for the stages:
Some geology info for the NW highlands:
The basement rock is ancient gneiss – 3 billion years old, some of the oldest in the world and originally part of the North American plate. This gradually eroded down to gentle valleys and hills over several million years.
The gneiss sunk down under shallow seas and was covered in ~5000m of Torridonian sandstone over 400 million years (1.2b – 800m years ago). Basically the mountains eroded and the dirt that washed off settled in the valleys and became sandstone.
Some other rock stuff happened and a bit later (500m years ago) Cambrian limestones and quartzites were laid down. Again, shallow sea stuff, but this time the dirt was washed around and re-eroded so many times that the only thing left was almost pure quartz.
Then Laurentia (mostly north America) crashed into Baltica and Avalonia (mostly Britain). This led to a massive pileup of rock layers, maybe as high as the Himalayas today, with the quartzites (and limestone) ending up directly on top of the sandstone, and repeating layers of these rocks so sometimes they look like they’re upside down (so sandstone on top of quartzite, or quartzite directly on top of gneiss).
Later Laurentia left again, but it had crashed so well that it couldn’t disentangle Scotland (or Northern Island) from Britain, so left it behind. It did take Greenland with it as compensation though.
The gneiss is metamorphic, grey-ish, reasonably hard and forms “knock and lochan” topography typical of this area – flat with lots of small knobbly hills (“cnocs”) and small lochs.
The sandstone is sedimentary, red and reasonably soft. A lot of it has weathered away but where protected by something (e.g. a quartzite cap) it forms high, peaked hills.
The quartzite is sedimentary, and almost entirely silica. It is very hard and resistance to weathering. It is white-ish and breaks into sharp, angular rocks that are slippery when wet and rough to walk on. The rocks are often bare because it doesn’t erode well enough to form soil for plants to grow on. This stuff doesn’t sound like fun.
The limestone is sedimentary and is quite resistant to physical weathering (wind, water) but very susceptible to chemical weathering (any kind of acidity in the water). This leads to caves and sinkholes where acidic water eats into any kind of weakness in the rock.
Midges/tourists peak in July/August, particularly this year with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in July. I want to avoid all this. However, I also want to go when the daylight hours are still long as I’m not planning on taking much lighting so I think I’d get pretty bored if it was dark for 14 hours a day. Also there are some important things on at home in September. So, it may be a balancing act. Here is some data from my research (yes, I’m an engineer!):