Hereby a draft chapter from work in progress, a description of an expedition to Ben Lawers in September 2015.
The Ben Lawers Squiggle
19th and 20th September 2015
As a child I was timid of animals that jumped up, and downright terrified of anything bigger than sheep, which I regarded as thoroughly benign from an early age, having fed orphaned lambs on my grandfather’s farm and known households where sheep were kept as companions. In particular, I was always wary of cattle. They look at you and form into a phalanx before slowly advancing, and they can suddenly break into a run, or charge. My parents were always very patient during family walks through farmland, indulging my need to bypass cattle by whatever means my childish imagination deemed necessary. Despite adult experience of the docility of these beasts and confidence now to be able to shoo them off, I have also encountered cattle who have not helped dispel my fears. From time to time it happens, a bit like the little panic on the pointy mountain at the end of my trip to Sutherland, I get myself into a fankle because cattle are looking at me.
So it began, when I emerged round the corner to Dericambus. From the moment I came through the gate onto a track over pasture to the farm, the small herd of cattle at the other end were looking at me. Behind the little cluster of buildings was the beginning of an elderly zigzag stalker’s path up the mountain. Not only marked on the map, but clearly visible on the ground. The start of another expedition to bag multiple Munros. Except that cattle were looking at me, from the other side of a field more than a hundred meters away, slowly gathering together and focusing on my presence, blocking the way.
There was only one thing to do. Take a wide berth. So I turned right towards the edge of the field, where I was able to climb a fence into open hillside, which I then traversed, using up rather more energy than had I walked through a field of cattle, I passed by several plantations and climbed another fence or two before crossing a burn in a bit of a gully to meet the first zig in the path at the top a steep bank. From here I looked down on the route I could have followed through the farm. Cattle remained gathered round the entrance to the only route to the beginning of the path. I sat down on a rock to prepare for the climb.
I was parked again in Glen Lyon, now heading south for the start of a longer circuit than the Horseshoe to the north. These mountains had been visible in my mind’s eye since they were emblazoned at the start of June from the summits of the Horseshoe. Massive grassy lumps, gashed by crags and impenetrable cliffs, steep flanked with no straightforward access from this side, still holding large quantities of snow. And behind the farm on the other side of the river from Invervar, a zigzag path leading to a shoulder onto the east end of the ridge of seven Munros that had been tempting me from the moment I first saw it. Younger legs than mine can bag all of these summits in a day, the usual approach is from the village of Lawers on the shore of Loch Tay, or from the visitor car park by the high road to Glen Lyon. I decided to enjoy it over two, starting from Invervar, a route which I was surprised to discover is not mentioned much. Apart from the matter of negotiating more than a few miles of squiggly single track road to arrive at Invervar, it looks more logistically responsible to start from here, the distance is less and it is certainly a more aesthetically pleasing circuit, well actually it is more of a squiggle than a circuit, joining the dots of summits draws the mirror image of a fallen over question mark.
It was a fine day. Blue sky and cloud competing for control, still warm enough for sporadic midges and humid. The path zigzagged up through steep pasture and bracken. On the other side of a fence the heather grew thicker, the ground became rockier and the path more difficult to find. After the zigzags stop, it follows a burn through a gully to a patch of boggy grass at about five hundred meters, on the other side of which is a fence, which crests a shoulder all the way to the start of the ridge. It was a slow plod, following the fence as far as possible over lumpy ground, dense with heather, scattered with rocky outcrops and boggy pools, making straight lines difficult to find. Higher up, the heather becomes stunted and the going less lumpy. At a slight bealach, I dumped my pack and headed east over easy ground to the first Munro of the day.
I reached the top of Meall Greigh at about two in the afternoon. To the north Glen Lyon, resplendent, lush and green. Glittering in the low autumn sunshine below to the west, south and east, the enormous squiggle of Loch Tay. Looking west, the route for the rest of the day, three more Munros under an open sky, with others behind. It all looked perfect. I wandered back to my pack, picked it up and carried on. As I picked a way through very pleasant country of grassy hollows and blunt outcrops, clouds began rolling in, scraping past the summits and lingering, spoiling the perfection. Climbing to the next summit, I was enveloped in swirly mist. I scanned through my camera for photos I had taken not an hour earlier of these very mountains under an open sky, trying to find a reason why this might have happened, where all these clouds came from. Not that it mattered. It was a fine climb to the long flat summits of Meall Garbh, which I reached about three, but I saw little more than cloud and the albeit interesting ground beneath my feet. At least there was no rain. Descending to the next bealach, I emerged from the cloud and could see down again, into deep green glens, pocked with traces of shielings. At the bealach I stopped for a breather in preparation for what lay ahead.
The third Munro of the day, An Stùc, appears from a certain angle to be only the highest point at the end of a subsidiary shoulder of Ben Lawers, from other angles it is much more prominent. The mountain was not included in early editions of Munro’s Tables and has only recently been admitted. It remains somewhat anomalous though, particularly since there is disagreement about its altitude between the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC), which keeps Munro’s Tables up to date, and the Ordnance Survey (OS), which surveys the ground. On the map, Meall Garbh and An Stùc are marked as respectively 1123 and 1117 meters, while on the SMC list and all others derived from it, both are recorded at 1118 meters. All of which raises many issues; what should be the proper criteria for Munro classification, why does the SMC apparently ignore the conclusions of OS surveyors, and how can there be any doubt at all about the height of a mountain? Surely it is a physical thing, with actual dimensions that can be accurately measured and objectively recorded?
According to the purists, the most important criterion for being a Munro, apart from having a summit more than three thousand feet above sea level, is that a mountain have a distinct character. I was about to discover precisely the characteristic of An Stùc that distinguished it from the bulk of Ben Lawers. As I sat, two others passed me by heading up the mountain, mentioning the difficulty ahead and asking if I had ever experienced it. They seemed to be seeking reassurance of some kind. I replied that I had heard of it but was on my way up for the first time. They looked at my pack in a way that did not seem significant until I was almost at the top. The path rose steeply from the bealach, zigzagging and circumnavigating crags and rough ground, following gravelly gullies, becoming narrower and much steeper until it is but a shallow cleft in the rock, with shiny places for clambering hands and feet, upwards for about three meters into the unknown.
Near the top of the scramble, I discovered why my pack was given such a look. Swinging up and left towards what appeared to be the only way forward, my pack scraped against the side of the cleft, which knocked me off balance, disturbing the rhythm of the ascent, causing me to look down, to check for footholds where I could support myself, turn without hindrance and climb on. A lot happens in such a moment. It was a long way down. My heart was racing. Sweat dripped off my nose. Fear taunted my consciousness, filling my mind’s eye with other terrifying heights of air that sucked me down, remembering in particular the terrors on Creag an Duine. I was aware suddenly that it was only my momentum that kept me from falling. I found a foothold, turned safely and climbed on. At the top there was a very good path, skirting the mountain, which was already becoming much less steep. I looked back to see that I had effectively climbed over the lip of a sheer cliff.
The summit was not far off. I was elated, but again there was nothing to see but the ground beneath my feet and cloud round my head, so I was also disappointed. From here the path follows a sharpish ridge down to another bealach, where again there were views through sunshine into glens, lochans and corries. After this, it is a slow gentle plod for a bit less than a mile along a blunt ridge to the summit of Ben Lawers, the tenth highest of the Munros. I reached the top at about five, lingered briefly and turned towards the final summit of the day, Beinn Ghlas. The descent to the bealach between the two mountains is a bit scrambly and requires care and concentration, especially with a big pack. At the bealach the path opens out again to create a gentle stroll all the way to the summit, which I reached at about six, now clear of cloud. From here I descended to the pass to the east of the mountain to find a flat piece of ground for the night.
There was not a lot of choice at the lowest point, where there is an elderly path up the glen from the visitor centre, which then zigzags down and peters out on the flank of the wide strath to the north, under the shadow of the curve in the squiggle from An Stùc past Ben Lawers to Beinn Ghlas, again dense at its head with signs of ancient habitation. I followed the dribble of a tiny burn towards the approach to the last two Munros of the squiggle, where I found a place for my tent. Quickly I got myself together, ate and prepared for the night. It was getting dark already, the weather was deteriorating and I was tired.
Camping on the White Mounth even a few weeks earlier, I was able to attenuate the flushes by having the tent front open to the cool of the night. Now with blustery winds and sporadic rain, this would not be such a good idea, and yet it was easier here than inside a building to awake from a flush and find cooling air. Something about the smell of peaty ground, the noises of moving air and occasional spatters of rain. Sleeping better pulled my consciousness away from a series of strange dreams that had been haunting me ever since the side effects of the medication kicked in properly, about three weeks earlier, every night being brought back to the same unspecifiable historical space where the same events play out, wobbling in a lucid place between real sleep and drowsiness, a continuous power nap that blurred reality.
The morning was cooler, with a stronger wind coming through the pass from the southwest, cloud still hugging the summits above about three and half thousand feet. I took my time. I was in no hurry. All I had to do was climb a little less than two hundred meters along the line of an old fence cresting the eastern shoulder to reach the summit of Meall Corranaich, then follow the ridge north to Meall a’ Coire Lèith, thereby completing the squiggle. About half way up I entered cloud, the summit was much stonier and rounder than previous peaks. Old iron fenceposts, flapping gently with Tibetan prayer flags led the way to a pile of stones, scattered with rusting fenceposts decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. A lovely greeting. I took photos and walked on north.
After the long narrow summit, there is an even narrower ridge along which the path is well defined, but after a subsidiary top it disappears into thick mossy grassland. In good visibility there would be absolutely no problem finding the way, but the cloud was still down and I did not properly look at the map to get my bearings before flanking the wrong ridge north. When the ground beneath my feet did not match what I had just seen on the map, I realised what I had done. But instead of returning I carried on, until I came out from under the cloud to see a narrow corrie below and the path on the other side, running along the top of a grassy ridge. Descending in search of a place for late elevenses, I found a lovely spot where a large boulder was lodged in a crevice next to the burn, creating a little waterfall, some pools and a stretch of grassy bank. There was little sun but I was at last out of the cloud and sheltered.
On top of the boulder there was a tiny forest of mosses, heather and lichens, which appeared even from quite close by to be a distant ridge of trees, scrub and undergrowth. I drifted in and out of sleep for a while, sheltered from the weather, securely protected from the elements by clever clothes, content with being exactly where I am. Meditating upon this, developing strategies that will make it possible to be content exactly where I am more generally, back in the reality of life in the city, or anywhere else, is a different matter. It is easy, at least it is for me, to be utterly content, without a care or worry in the world, sitting beside a gurgling mountain burn contemplating the ease with which it is possible to flip perspective, to see growth on a nearby rock as a verdant mountain far away. It is less easy to be as fascinated by the moment to moment duplicity of perspective while getting on with regular life. I sat for a while, then clambered up a slope to a bealach and the path.
On the other side of the ridge there is precipitous series of corries, which peters out into the steep round east side of Meall a’ Coire Lèith, the seventh Munro of the squiggle. The path skirts the edge, affording excellent views on the other side of the hugeness of Ben Lawers, Meall Garbh and An Stùc. Again, the summit was shrouded in cloud, so I came off quickly, carefully consulting the map beforehand and skirting a sheer corrie bitten into the north side of the mountain, down a grassy ridge to the east strewn with boulders, towards a gathering of ruined shielings in the strath, not far from the end of a track into Glen Lyon. At the bottom I rested again, preparing myself for a long walk back to the car at Invervar, probably about five miles. It was still only two in the afternoon.
I was tired and in no hurry. The track down from this high glen cuts into the edge of a steep V shaped valley, almost all the way down into farmland. I bypassed the first farm through a field of sheep and found myself on the wrong side of a dense barbed wire fence, my passage to the track on the other side blocked. I walked on through the field, traversing several sheepy ditches and boggy puddles until I found a gate, over which I could easily climb. After this the track passes by several farms, where people waved, one in woodland, guarded by a random gang of barking dogs who were a lot less intimidating than they thought they were, and occupied by a friendly German woman, happy now to call this country home after several decades in this house. I told her she was welcome, as well as fortunate to live in such a beautiful and peaceful place.
I sauntered on through gentle woodland, beginning to sense autumn in the air, leaves less green, some now yellowing at the edges, some already turned completely. Multicoloured fungi bursting through mossy ground under birches, swaying thoughtfully in the breeze. The River Lyon meandering steadily, frothy bubbles swirling on its surface making shapes in some alien script. Clouds continued to dominate, although there was sometimes sunshine, and out of the wind it was still warm. I reached the car at about four thirty, changed my shoes and made myself a cup of tea before driving back to the city.
This is a fine circuit, strangely not mentioned often in guides, but certainly possible in a day for fit young legs, particularly in summer. Though it is possible, I suppose, that fewer people have come this way because they have been put off by cattle.