Bad Gastein: Graukogel

I’m in the Austrian Alps. Typically my walking adventures have been published long after they happen, because I don’t have reliable Internet and I’m too busy moving about. But this time, I’m staying in one place (Bad Gastein) and doing day walks, so this post is only two days after the fact.

Gastein is an Alpine valley in Austria, with fantastic scenery, but has a convenient railway and extensive bus service within the valley. Bad Gastein is the most impressive of the towns in the valley, with grand hotels projecting out of the rock face, centred around a waterfall. The town seems to have been capable of supporting a much larger number of visitors at one point: many of the shop fronts and buildings in the centre are currently boarded up, covered in old black and white photos of past glory.

Bad Gastein

My first walking adventure in the area was to climb the 2492m Graukogel (grey mountain) which loomed over my hostel. It has a chair lift, but I wanted to ascend by foot, given that I already had a 1000m head start by starting at Bad Gastein rather than sea level.

The ascent was fairly steep, but somehow easy and pleasant, through forest and alpine pastures. The paths are well maintained and waymarked, and the ground is generally rocky and dry compared to Scotland. I wore light trail running shoes: they provided grip and robust soles, but with no need to keep my feet dry they were far less bulky than boots.

I stopped at a mountain hut for lunch, but found the vegetarian options limited so just had french fries. I then continued on up to the first peak, Huttenkogel (2231m). Here it was still green and pleasant, but the grey and less hospitable Graukogel was rising in clear sight alongside. I continued up the path, which became rockier and a required use of hands in one or two places.

In case anyone needs additional motivation to climb these mountains, in the Gastein valley almost every hiking destination rewards you with a stamp, which grants you a set number of points, which in turn can be traded in (with the addition of some cash) for Wandernadeln (hiking “needles”/badges). I didn’t collect the stamps, which is unfortunate because had I done so I could be proudly wearing a bronze Wandernadel at this very moment.

Stamp at the peak of Graukogel

At the summit, most people come down the same way, but I continued on over the top. This involved a tricky scramble for hundreds of meters, where a slip could have been fatal. Luckily there was little wind and there were no clouds.

Looking back at the ridge I had to scramble down

Eventually I came to a mountain pass where I was able to walk again, and turned down towards the valley. The weather started to turn, with wind and light rain.

The walk down seemed to go on and on. It was pleasant enough, taking me through sparse forest and past a lake. Eventually when I got to the valley it seemed even colder. I learned this was partly due to cold winter air trapped in the rocks around the valley, which keep the valley colder than it would otherwise be in summer.

I continued on along the mostly flat Kotschachtel valley and along the road back to Bad Gastein. I was completely exhausted – even though the walking was all on good ground with easy navigation, it was still a lot of height to cover in a day!

Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis Falls

Not The West Highland Way

Day 9: Meanach – Glen Nevis / Fort William

Friday 1st June 2018

Distance: 12 miles [view on map]

Leaving Meanach, I first had to walk a number of miles over rough group with barely a path. Eventually a clear path appeared and I began to meet other walkers, and soon many more when I reached waterfalls of Glen Nevis. I bought an ice cream – then walked down the road to the campsite (a few miles further). Then more miles to Fort William and back for dinner and to pick up food from the supermarket.

This was the end of my journey, but I had two days before my return coach and train, so I spend two days in Glen Nevis and Fort William. I didn’t walk much, but did some reading and discovered that since my last visit to Fort William, a new vegan coffee shop (The Wildcat) has been established, which I recommend.

Meanach Bothy

Meanach Bothy

Not The West Highland Way

Day 8: Loch Ossian – Meanach

Thursday 31st May 2018

Distance: 8 miles [view on map]

I started the day at Loch Ossian Hostel, taking it easy and having a cooked breakfast.

This was a short day of walking 10 – 6 at a slow pace, stopping at Staoineag Bothy for lunch, where I also tried to make some improvements: I started to fill the eroded path with rocks from the stream.

I stopped at Meanach Bothy for the night. It felt very remote and was eerily quiet, despite being just the other side of Ben Nevis, 12 miles from the significant town of Fort William.

I only met one group of walkers all day.

Rannoch Moor

Highland Cattle on Rannoch Moor

Not The West Highland Way

Day 7: King’s House to Rannoch (and train to Corrour)

Wednesday 30th May 2018

Distance: 11 miles [view on map]

I decided to leave the West Highland for the remainder of my journey, and my plan for the day was to cross Rannoch Moor and then walk to Loch Ossian where I had booked a hostel.

Walking along estate track over Rannoch Moor, the going was much easier than indicated by my guidebook, as tracks had been resurfaced and extended. Only crossing Stab na Cruaiche (739m) did I have to walk over the boggy but dry ground without a path or track, but over the top I picked up a rough 4×4 track that guided me down to a forest path – somewhat easier than the book’s suggested route. I found a nice tea room at Rannoch Station and decided to catch the train rather than continue to walk in the heat. By now my calf was sore, so I decided to take it easy for the rest of the journey to Fort William, which worked well because I still had a few days before my train back and didn’t want to spend too long in Fort William.

After taking the West Highland Railway a single stop to Corrour, I found another station cafe, and went in for a beer while I waited for the hostel to open. Corrour is an unusual station in that it has no public road access, though there is a good estate track. There is nothing in Corrour except the station and the station house.

I walked down to the hostel at Loch Ossian, a mile away. The hostel was very basic – hot showers were apparently a recent addition! It slept 20 in a male and female bunk room. A stag lived on the island 20 meters from the hostel, apparently it sometimes swam over for a visit!

West Highland Pub Crawl

River Orchy from Bridge of Orchy

Not The West Highland Way

Day 6: Tyndrum – Bridge of Orchy – King’s House

Tuesday 29th May 2018

Distance: 20 miles [view on map]

After a day of (mostly) rest, I felt re-energised, as I continued along the official West Highland Way route on old military roads. I passed a number of groups on the way to Bridge of Orchy where I planned to have lunch at the hotel. I was early so had coffee instead, then marched on to the Inveroran Hotel over the hill for lunch in the hikers bar. Most people I spoke to had a long day ahead: they were headed to Glen Coe or King’s House and I decided to do the same.

I stopped at Glen Coe Ski Centre / Mountain Resort in the evening for dinner, a beer, a shower, and to recharge my phone. I then walked on past the King’s House (being re-built) to camp on Rannoch Moor.

This was the most social day, as I met the same groups at the various pub / cafe stops along the way (typically passing them between each stop as my strategy was to spend as much time as possible out of the hot sun).

Tyndrum

Not The West Highland Way

Day 5: Ben Lui – Tyndrum

Monday 28th May 2018

Distance: about 6 miles (not recorded)

Awaking at 950m near the summit of Ben Lui, my phone battery was depleted, and so was I. I needed to get back to civilisation. My splash in a stream the previous day was nice, but after 4 nights I needed a proper shower!

After initially heading off in the wrong direction, I found the steep path down to the valley. In the valley I joined a track and the walking became much easier. I cut over the side of a hill through a forest track and down into Tyndrum.

In Tyndrum I stopped for lunch at the Green Welly stop, which is basically a service station. I then checked into a campsite and showered. I relaxed at the campsite to recharge, and also recharge my phone! Doing nothing, I found (not even walking), was quite hard!

No photos from this day unfortunately due to my dead phone battery.

Ben Lui

Not The West Highland Way

Day 4: Doune Byre Bothy – Ben Lui

Sunday 27th May 2018

Distance: 8 miles [view on map]

I packed up and left the bothy early, then walked up to the end of Loch Lomond and Beiglas campsite. I was just in time for breakfast at the cafe, but it was a bit rushed as they were closing up.

I had decided to deviate from the West Highland Way again, and climb another Munro – Ben Lui. I walked along the road and then up a track, but I was roasting in the heat.

I came to a pool of water by the track. It was part of a stream with a good amount of water flowing, and it looked very appealing. Now that I had left the popular West Highland Way, there was no-one about, so I jumped in. I washed off three days of grit and sweat, and cooled down to a comfortable temperature. After this refreshing splash the rest of the ascent was far more bearable.

I continued up the track and through a valley alongside an aqueduct pipe. Eventually the track came to an end and I continued up Ben Lui with little path to follow. It was now early evening, and the weather was looking good, so I set up camp a little below the summit at 950m, in a sheltered area between two ridges, surrounded by melting snow.

Unfortunately I have no photos as my phone battery was running low!

Ben Lomond

Loch Lomond from Ben Lomond

Not The West Highland Way

Day 3: Foot of Ben Lomond – Doune Byre Bothy

Saturday 26th May 2018

Distance: 13.5 miles [view on map]

Although I was camping part way up the path, I was not the first up Ben Lomond on Saturday morning. The midges lurking outside my tent had discouraged me from leaving it until about 8:30am, by which time perhaps hundreds of people had started their ascent and some were already on the way down. It must be one of the most popular Munros of the Highlands.

The ascent was not too hard due to a good path, but I noticed that I was one of the few crazy enough to carry a full pack with camping gear up! At the top about 50 people were standing around admiring the views or sitting eating a sandwich, despite the wind. I did not stay for long, and started to come down on a path to the north west, which would swung me back round to the south had I continued on it. But I was headed north, and although there was no path north, that would not stop me!

I came down the grassy north face, avoiding steep rocky outcrops in places. The walking was much tougher than the path up, but the thick grass made the descent fairly easy on the knees. I headed towards a smaller hill, Cruin a’ Bheinn, which my guidebook suggested going up. First I had to squeeze through a deer fence. Which I reached the base of Cruin a’ Bheinn I decided I had done enough ascent for the day so I swung round the side. I then had to cross a stretch of low, boggy ground, but it was not too bad because of the lack of rain. I mostly followed deer tracks to avoid the boggiest bits.

I reached a farm track, which took me back down to Loch Lomond, and I then continued north along the shore for the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening. When I reached Doune Byre Bothy, I found no-one was staying there, despite being right next to the West Highland Way, so I decided to stay there overnight.

As I unpacked and cooked my quick cook pasta dinner, various people stopped by. First couple of German lads turned up, just arrived off the ferry, and seemingly knew nothing about the Highlands except that they wanted to see it, so I explained a few things like the West Highland Way. They decided to go off and camp.

Next a couple of northerners on mountain bikes turned up, and explained they were cycling the West Highland Way and were 30km behind their schedule because the stretch along the northern half of Loch Lomond had been so rocky they had to carry their bikes most of the way. They could not get to their hotel and everything was booked up because it was bank holiday weekend, so it seemed they were in luck having just found a bothy! But they seemed determined to continue, attracted the idea of reaching a campsite with facilities or perhaps even better, a pub where they could drink away their worries! They took some of the sleeping gear that people had left behind and the bothy, and continued on to the campsite – without a tent. I wonder if anyone had told them about the Scottish midges.

Finally, a group of Czechs arrived who did want to stay. They slept at one end of the Bothy while I slept at the other. They, like me, were carrying all their camping gear, but had not invested in lightweight gear so had huge packs. Over the following days I kept meeting them at various points along the West Highland Way, unfortunately they were not easing in to the walk. The last time I saw them they were limping along as though they were lost in the desert.

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond from Conic Hill

Not The West Highland Way

Day 2: Earl’s Seat – Foot of Ben Lomond

Friday 25th May 2018

Distance: 24 miles [view on map]

From my wild camp on Earl’s Seat, I starting the day with a descent over some smaller peaks. the ground was very slippery due to erosion and perhaps because it was so dry, the sandy earth provided no grip.

I passed a distillery before returning to the official West Highland Way path, which I followed for the rest of the day. Stopped at Drymen for lunch and coffee, before continuing on in the afternoon heat. Over Conic hill I had fantastic views of Loch Lomond (last time it had been in cloud). I stocked up in Balmaha Village Shop before continuing along the shore of Loch Lomond into the Highlands region.

Being a sunny bank holiday weekend, there was no accommodation available and even the camp sites were full, so I would be wild camping all weekend. At Rowardennan, I left the West Highland Way for the path up Ben Lomond and camped in the forest. As it turned out I was too close to the path, because I was woken in the night by passing nocturnal hikers at about 1am and 3am with their noisy sticks. I had never had this problem when wild camping before, but I would soon find out how busy the path up Ben Lomond is!

Earl’s Seat, Campsie Fells

Approaching the Campsie Fells

Late-May 2018…

I had booked some time off and wanted to get out of the city and get somewhere remote. I had already decided to go to Scotland but hadn’t picked a route. It had been over a year and a half since I had done a multi-day hike with camping gear, and I didn’t feel fully prepared for total remoteness, so I decided against going to the far north of Scotland. The Southern Upland Way in the south of Scotland was an appealing option, but the hills are fairly modest and I wouldn’t have had time to complete such a long coast-to-coast walk.

I settled on the Southwest Highlands because they are so easy to get to – not far from Glasgow, and with a convenient end point in the Highland town of Fort William. Glasgow to Fort William is the basic idea behind The West Highland Way, but I’d done most of that before and I knew that it’s mostly low valley paths (old military roads etc). The West Highland Way is also very busy and has a commercial feel, so it often feels more like being in a city park than remote countryside. But then I do appreciate all those pubs and shops…

I discovered a guide from Cicerone: Not The West Highland Way. It followed the official West Highland Way but gives alternative routes which can be taken along the way, to climb Munros or get into more remote areas. This seemed like a good basis for a walk that would ease me back into long distance hiking, but also provide the possibility for some real adventure!

After picking up this guide and some bits of equipment I was missing, I set off on the train to Glasgow, and then the local train to Milngavie, a Glasgow suburb. Milngavie (pronounced completely differently to how it is written) is the start of the West Highland Way, so the locals presumably saw me and thought “there’s yet another West Highland Way hiker”. Little did they know that I was in fact walking…

Not The West Highland Way

Day 1: Milngavie – Earl’s Seat

Thursday 24th May 2018

Distance: 10 miles [view on map]

Rocky outcrop near Strathblane

I set off around 3:30pm, following the West Highland Way through Mugdock Country Park, then forked off towards the Campsie Fells via Strathblane. At Strathblane, I crossed my route from my JOGLE walk almost two years prior. I actually had a flashback of walking past the pub in Strathblane about half an hour before I got there, and this happened to be the exact place that the route intersected with the JOGLE walk of 2016. I remember thinking as I walked on a flat concrete cycle path in 2016 that it was a shame I couldn’t walk over the Campsie Fells to my left, which that month had looked more enticing than much of the cloud-obscured Highlands. Now two years later I had the opportunity to see them up close!

The Campsie Fells seem to be largely ignored by hikers, as they are not part of the Highlands. So many pass them when walking the West Highland Way, but the aim is to reach the Highlands as quickly as possible so most just walk on by. I met a local cyclist just before heading up, he told me he had lived in the area for 10 years but never been up!

A tough climb along a farmers track got tougher as the track disappeared. Crossing peat bog with barely any path wasn’t too bad given the dry days before. The views were fantastic – over Glasgow, and the towns towards the East Coast. I had a feeling the East Coast was not much beyond my sight, but I couldn’t spot it. Arriving at the summit of Earl’s Seat just after 8pm, the views expanded to include Loch Lomond and the Highlands. The sun set over the Highlands. I pitched my tent on a grassy spot just below the summit. I was really excited to spend a day in such remote hills in such good weather! OK, they are not really that remote due to the proximity of Glasgow, but they certainly had a feeling of remoteness, as I hope is visible from the photos.

Even if the views had not been there, the Campsie Fells were fantastic – such a range of colours and contrasts in the grasses.