Sean McFarlane embarks on a trip designed to awaken his fitness as the seasons change
Pictures by Andy McCandlish
Winter’s grip was beginning to loosen, just slightly. As it did, I felt compelled to get the maps out and plot an adventure. My wife often rolls her eyes as she sees me lying in front of the fire with a range of Ordinance Survey maps sprawled over the floor. Pencil in mouth, I ponder and plan. The requirements for this one are clear… We needed an awesome day filled with stunning and remote landscape; a day where we felt minuscule when thrown into the outdoor arena that is the irresistible Scottish highlands and their majestic snowy peaks, now more accessible following Spring’s thaw.
And all this was to be less than 90 minutes from home and within the reach of even those with a very modest fitness level. And the icing on the cake… we were determined to make at least a good attempt at replacing every last one of the calories burnt with some quality fish and chips at the end of it.
Our starting point is Tyndrum. A small village located on the main route from Glasgow to Fort William, just south of Glencoe, it’s a well known spot. The West Highland Way comes through the village but we’re spoilt for choice of routes today so won’t be touching that popular walking trail on this occasion. I’ve driven the road here on numerous occasions over the years. As I do, I often gaze westwards and am impressed and intrigued in equal measure with the stunning Ben Lui and its surrounding peaks. On many a journey to Fort William, I’d looked at that area, with the snow capped tops set against the piercing blue skies behind. I ’d known it wouldn’t be long before I’d plan something to immerse myself in the area’s outstanding landscape.
With Ben Lui the jewel in the crown, our circuit today is a three munro run (though as always I suspect we’ll be walking at least half of it) with a bike in and out to start and finish with. As seems to be the case for many of our adventures these days, non-running forms of transport provide a welcome assist. Bikes, kayaks and even trains have all been used to great effect for us recently and we’re continuing that trend here. Mountain bikes will start and finish the day. We could have run the initial five-kilometre stretch but why run when you can bike? More importantly, 10 kilometres of extra running would take the required exertion levels for this particular excursion considerably higher.
For today at least, that wasn’t what we were looking for. Via a flurry of text messages the night before, the four of us “officially” arrange to arrive in Tyndrum at 10am. Whilst Chris and Dave are bang on time, I travel with our photographer Andy who seems to approve of my usual sneaky tactics of arriving early for coffee and cake. The car park is the normal scene of kit and energy bars. The forecast is set to be good all day so that helps with planning what to take, though we still opt for too much rather than too little. Fair enough. Almost ready to set off, I turn around to see Dave looking menacing with an ice axe.
Quickly and gladly realising I’m not the intended target, I advise against the need for it; if we get in to that sort of terrain we’ll be turning back. We saddle up and spin out to the west of the village and are quickly over the train line and into the forest. As we gently gain height on the big wide track, we banter. The forest is thick around us and after 15 minutes of easy biking we reach the far side. This is surely the closest I’ll get to running out of the players’ tunnel at Murrayfield.
The forest leaves us and the light brightens. We whizz out of the trees and into the vast open landscape. Dave and I grin whilst Chris gives his usual “Whaw!” – he works harder than us and the comparison with his window-less office is almost too much for him. We’ve been on the move for less than 30 minutes but we already feel we’re in the heart of some seriously remote countryside. We whizz along the surprisingly dry (it is April after all) Landrover track and soon reach our bike drop-off point of Cononish, a tiny farm settlement.
We go about locking our bikes up in the copse of trees, no doubt entirely unnecessarily. On foot now, we continue with a gentle jog up the glen. As we do, Ben Lui is in full view. I’ve seen plenty of Scottish mountains but this one really is a bit special. It’s well defined snow-capped ridges are perfectly silhouetted today against the sharp blue sky. We see the corrie basin of Coire Gaothaich – it looks like a good place for a regroup half way up. It’s not long before someone says “Everest” for comparative reasons. None of us dismisses the suggestion. As we run towards its north east base, the mountain grows imposingly over us.
It looks like a long way up, and it is, at well over 1,000 metres. We stop at the bottom to briefly decide the best way up. It looks obvious to the corrie but after that it’s a choice of two ridges, we agree the right hand one looks the better option. Even from here at the bottom, we can see the snow on the ridge, so it’s clear we need to monitor things as we ascend. It’s a solid grassy climb and we quickly gain height. With the lungs filling nicely and the pleasant spring sunshine on our backs, we eventually reach the corrie. With impressive rock formations everywhere and snow cornices plentiful, it’s a magical place. What a great location to camp, but not today. With the snow now kicking in, several streams punch through the sugary white stuff. We stop for some food accompanied by a drink of water as pure as it gets.
Onwards and upwards. The gentle incline in the flat corrie now gives way to some seriously steep terrain. As we zig-zag our way up, Chris and I are glad we brought trekking poles. Dave’s using his hands. We pick our way through the snow patches and slowly but steadily approach the ridge. Popping out onto a high mountain ridge in blue sky conditions gives you a feeling that’s hard to beat, and this one doesn’t disappoint. We all gaze, marvel and point.
The peaks rollercoaster away from us and we feel both very small and very on our own. It’s a vast expanse of stunning emptiness. “Why don’t we do more of this?” I say to the guys. It’s never an easy question to answer, I suspect because we can’t. Aware that we could spend a lot of time just staring at the scenery here, we bash on. The ridge requires attention but it’s a good and grippy track. On the summit I see someone who appears to have two very sizeable walking poles in his pack. As I get closer, I see he’s a ski tourer. When we reach him, we chat and compare notes. He tells us the names of all the ski-runs off the summit – we figure if they have names then they must be quite popular? Maybe… but either way we briefly admit defeat in “who is having the most awesome day” competition.
We head south east off the summit. It’s good running and we are all like the proverbial kids in the sweetie shop. And it’s a massive shop. Our next summit is Ben Oss. As usual, the feedback from the others tells a story. Chris has long been lost for words – he enthused about the car park – but Dave has done plenty of hill walking so is altogether more difficult to impress. As we drop down and begin to then climb up Ben Oss’s south west side, Dave says: “This really is a great run – I’ll need to come back with the other half.” I’m happy – an adventure that guarantees no matrimonial disharmony is the ultimate compliment to me as route planner!
Our second summit reached, we all quickly see the huge snow patch conveniently placed right over our planned line of descent. Chris, the voice of reason, says we should go around it and although undoubtedly correct, I consider it for at least two seconds before shouting “Ah f*** it!” at Dave and I batter down it.
Dave follows and after a little headshake so does Chris. He always wanted to. In reality we’d seen throughout the day that the snow was very soft and this section was no different. I love this – finally I can run downhill quickly! Eventually the snow ends and it’s back to grass and stone. We pick our way down and then make our way up to the summit of our last peak of the day, Beinn Dubhchraig. The terrain is good and we increase the pace.
Quickly on to the top, we gaze back at the circuit. Ben Lui once again dominates and although it seems like we’ve come a long way, we’ve made very quick progress and our bags are still surprisingly full with food. From our vantage point, it certainly looks a far more exhausting route
than is actually the case.
As we descend, the gold mine (yes, seriously) on the hill behind our target marks the way. Cononish once more comes into view, Once back at our bikes, we chuck our helmets on and spin back. With the light westerly breeze at our backs, we quickly reach the forest. Tyndrum has several notable pit stops and arguably the best of the lot is its award-winning fish and chip shop. My mind has been focused on it for too long now. There’s all sort of healthy and smaller portioned options on the menu but I’ve purposely abstained from my final muesli bar to ensure a full-power appetite. No half sizes for me thanks. With hunger now pushing us on, we head through the forest and crossing the railway line, Tyndrum looks idyllic. With smoke gently rising from the cottages dotted liberally around, off-road finally turns to tarmac and we make the short cruise back to the cars. A quick squirt of deodorant and we head in for some calorie replacement. Always good to see a menu with the word “whale” on it. Four of them please.
Chris does point out that this will probably end up being an overall calorie gain day. The spectacular nature of today’s adventure does belie the exertion levels required to do it. As usual, Chris is right and I nod as another mouthful of mushy peas hits the spot. We discuss alternatives. Doing the whole thing in the other direction is an obvious option though we agree we ascended and descended Ben Lui in the preferable direction.
We could very easily add in another munro, Ben a’Chleibh just off to the south west side of Ben Lui. The whole day would also make for a great walk. That corrie is certainly a perfect and stunning spot for an overnight camp. The train station in Tyndrum opens up yet more possibilities. You could even walk here from Glasgow along the West Highland Way. We all agree that we can’t think of a circuit so spectacular, easy to get to and accessible. Plus it really doesn’t require a great deal of exertion.