The Importance of Ravens

Munros since diagnosis #143 to #147


11:15 – Beinn a’ Chleibh (M279), 3005ft, 916m

12:30 – Ben Lui (M028), 3707ft, 1130m

14:45 – Ben Oss (M101), 3376ft, 1029m

16:30 – Beinn Dubhcraig (M175), 3209ft, 978m

This little cluster is more often bagged over two journeys. There are only two starting points that make any kind of navigational sense, one at either end of a squiggly ridge about ten miles long; trying to bag all four summits in one day from either of these would be work for fitter folks than me with maybe 14 hours walking. The solution of course is two cars – one at either end of the ridge. Chris was up for it on what looked like it was going to be the last fine day of the climate’s latest allusion to spring.

I left home at about six with the sun rising behind me and colouring the quiet misty landscape. On the way along Loch Earn, stopped to answer nature’s call I heard from the far side in the still morning air the unmistakable call of a cuckoo.

We met at Dalrigh just short of Tyndrum and continued in my car to the Forestry Commission car park on the A85 at NN 239 278. After easily wading the River Lochy and squeezing under the railway, we were walking up through the forest before nine. We missed the first bridge and had to ploughter up the boggy path on the east of the burn until we could find an easy way over it and into a felled section of forest on the far edge of which the path up and out was clearly visible.


When we emerged from the forest into the corrie, morning cloud was dusting Beinn a’ Chleibh to the right and hanging over Ben Lui to the left. A pair of ravens flew past, cawing at each other. We were presented with a choice; in front of us was a good looking route towards a bealach encrusted at its lowest point by an overhanging cornice that we would certainly have to negotiate, to our right was a steep round lump of grassy terraces, gullies and random outcrops. We looked at each other and agreed we would surely be able to find a way through that. And we both felt that there is something especially satisfying about traversing a ridge from beginning to end without detour or backtracking.


Just below the first remnant of snow we came across a climber’s path traversing upwards to the right and avoiding the outcrop immediately above. We followed this until it seemed to peter out, where we struck on upwards over turf, as far as possible avoiding gravel and mossy outcrops of rock, until all movement right was impeded by the gash of a gully. Thankfully the ground was still stable, the rocks firmly embedded in the earth, the grass not green enough to be slippery.


I usually approach the task of clambering moment to moment; what is now the best solution to the problem of up. Chris seems to be more methodical. After successfully solving the problem of up all the way up, I found a place where the gradient levelled off and I could sit to survey the view, reflect and wait for Chris. There was one moment when I had to make what is sometimes called a “bad step” over some air under an outcrop at the termination of a small gully in order then to proceed around it and up, and there was a slight wobble on a bit of exposed crag, but I was safe, in spite of pumping heart. Chris did not appear. I returned down to where the slope began to get steeper and peered over the edge. No sign. I told myself that he would be fine and returned to my pack, deciding to wait a little further up where I would get a broader view of him coming up the hill. At length I saw him approaching, with a big smile and clutching his ice axe: “that was fun”, he said.


At the end of the day I took a photo of the hill from the car park to remind myself of this radical start to the day, and have worked out now the route we took. Slightly to the left of the centre of the shot above, slightly above the centre line is a small downward slanting snowbank on a terrace between two layers of outcrop. We climbed to this from the right, traversed beneath it and then found our way up through the crags and gullies at the left. So the hard work of the day was done, and we were at the summit in no time. After the ascent, the walk from Beinn a Chleibh to Ben Lui was gentle, interspersed with easy crunching over stable snowbanks. At the bealach we saw people cutting their way through the cornice, which did indeed steepen to an overhang at its edge. On the way up, we stopped for a snack as the last remnant of cloud blew off and opened up the summit to the sky.

Briefly we were the only ones on the summit, although several parties could be seen approaching from all directions, amongst whom, some folks with ropes on the central buttress and three lads with skis strapped to their packs coming up the north ridge. Clearly our ascent of Beinn a’ Chleibh was not the most radical thing that was happening hereabouts today. We continued on our way as the lads were preparing themselves to plummet off an edge over which I would think twice about looking, and the assembling humans watched with interest. A pair of ravens swooped through the air above the summit, playing with updrafts, showing off to any humans paying attention that just being a raven was much more awesome than anything they could get up to.


Proceeding towards Ben Oss and looking back we could see a couple of the lads, clinging sideways on their skis to the snowbank of the central gully – presumably solving the immediate problem of down.

The route followed a broad undulating ridge of grass, earthy ground and rocks with no difficult gradients, often over large stable snowbanks. At intervals, springs of clear new water gurgled out of the mountain, combining into the beginnings of burns with water seeping out from under the snowbanks, gathering into pure pools and lochans. The first signs after this winter that the mountains are coming alive again, preparing to burst open with life. At the summit of Ben Oss we met some people who said that the lads with skis had precipitated a small avalanche. We could see as we walked towards Beinn Dubhcraig that the snow in the northern corrie of Ben Lui was scarred with the stain of a landslide.


The descent toward the final summit of the day was almost entirely over the back side of the cornice hanging off the ridge. Fairly easy going. The way up Beinn Dubhcraig was again predominately over snow. At the summit we rested before descending north over massive flat snowbanks into a broad corrie where we met a walker’s path on the north edge of the burn.



It was a long walk out over a path that changed rapidly from sturdy to squelchy, following the burn as it accelerated through a ravine emerging from beneath collapsing snowbanks, past a series of waterfalls and into a sublime remnant of the Caledonian forest.


Since mid morning we had not dropped much below 700 meters, and we had always been accompanied by a stiff wind from the south west which took away the immediate heat of the sun, but as we came into the still air in the depth of the trees we could feel the temperature rise and I realised it must have been a bit of a scorcher in the glen today. I was very glad that I had not also walked up this path at the beginning of the day, for although this is a most beautiful forest, it would have been a long walk in to add to the long walk out.


We reached Dalrigh just before six, taking the length of the walk to a respectable nine hours. In preparation for the journey home, Chris changed out of his boots and mountain clothes while stretching and making contented noises, as I sat waiting in the passenger seat of his car, with my feet singing in my boots, to be transported to mine so I could do the same. When we got there less than half an hour after we arrived back at Dalrigh, we said farewell and he drove off. I changed out of my boots, ate the rest of my rations and prepared for the journey home. Just as I was about to leave, I saw three figures walking along the riverside path from the mountain, all carrying skis. I waited to ask them how they got on and whether the rumour was true that they had caused an avalanche. They had come off the summit and climbed back up again to do the same four or five times, and yes one of them had started a little avalanche, just a little one. They had obviously had as good a day out as the rest of the many others we had met along the way.

Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhcraig from Ben Lui.

I have heard it said that this cluster is the finest in Scotland. With less than half now to complete, I cannot disagree. And this was the best way of experiencing it; at the very cusp of winter and spring, on a fine sunny day, with lots of others out and about enjoying this miraculous planet, in good company, without backtracking or returning by the same path.

Ben Oss and Ben Lui from Beinn Dubhcraig.

When eventually I got home, after stopping twice along the way to power nap, in response to my enthusiasm about the ravens who only I seem ever to witness showing off their lives to passing humans, my wife told me that some organisation or other had been given a licence for five years to cull them. My heart sank; not only because of the thought of the murder of these special creatures, this unkindness, but for the inevitable stupidity of the arguments that will be used to justify the decision and the likely complicity of these in the usual interests. Without knowing the details, I tried to think of some genuine ecological reason why ravens might pose a threat, either to other species or to the environment. Maybe they push out mountain raptors? Later I did some research and discovered that the licence is for a limited area of much lower land in Perthshire where few walkers go and that is used predominately as grouse moor. Coincidentally I’m sure, this is a region well known for so called “wildlife crime” where several tagged raptors have inexplicably disappeared. The justification for the licence to cull ravens in this area is allegedly experimental; to measure in the absence of ravens the effects on the populations of wading birds that also live here. Seems much more likely to me though that I was right, that local landowners have found another way of protecting their interests in the name of ecology by killing a species they believe to be preying on grouse.

But hey! What do I know? I just climb mountains and have long understood the importance of ravens.

The guardian of Stob Dearg. Photo !9th September 2016.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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