Now the clocks have gone back and the long dark nights of winter are approaching, it seems like a good time to look back on a day just two months gone when the sun burned brightly and it seemed like things couldn’t get any better.
It’s been two years since I last left these shores, and while I know many people are champing at the bit to travel further afield – if they haven’t already started – I’ve surprised myself by patiently waiting with no great urge to travel.
One reason for this is that I’ve spent four weeks in the Scottish Highlands this year. I’ve been travelling to Scotland for over a quarter of a century, and this year’s trips have been some of the best I’ve ever had.
There have been many highlights, but one day stood out for exceeding expectations. You’ve all heard of the Famous Five and the Jackson Five, and some of you can even remember the Dave Clark Five, but if you’ve never heard of the Ben Lawers Five then you’re missing out.
The Ben Lawers group consists of eight Munros on three separate ridges rising above elongated Loch Tay like the fore-talons of an eagle. Their highest peak, 1,214m Ben Lawers, just squeezes in at no.10 on the list of Britain’s highest mountains, and their geographical location in the Central Highlands, a short distance north of Glasgow, make them some of Scotland’s more popular and accessible peaks.
Ben Lawers is also a good peak for cheating. The visitor centre car park is at 400m, which gives you a bit of a headstart if you ascend the main tourist route over its subsidiary Munro of Beinn Ghlas (1,103m). I climbed both peaks in April 2010 after a fresh dump of late winter snow. Indeed, there was so much snow that my own headstart was wiped out because I couldn’t get up (the road, that is). Cars were parked on the verge in forestry land a few hundred metres below, and I had to walk up the road. At the summit of Beinn Ghlas I met someone on skis.
This time around we had a different plan in mind. On its north-eastern side, Ben Lawers forms an elegant horseshoe with three more Munros – An Stuc (1,117m), Meall Garbh (1,123m) and the outlier of Meall Greigh (1,001m) ringing the secluded lake of Lochan nan Cat.
Our plan was to climb these three north-eastern Munros in a single day from the roadside at Loch Tay, then descend to Lochan nan Cat. Our guidebook gave a hedged estimate of 7-10 hours to complete the circuit. Under normal circumstances I’d be looking at the lower figure, but two things gave me cause for concern. The third peak of An Stuc was described as a steep scramble that could be ‘technical in certain conditions’. But just how steep and technical? More definitely, my exhausted stagger along the summit ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor the previous week had highlighted that I was hardly mountain fit.
This circuit of the three Munros was filed away as the ‘Big Three’ and left for the day of the week with the best conditions. In the meantime, Edita and I got to work on some training hikes. On the Sunday we raced up and down another Munro, Maol Ghaordaidh, in 4 hours. We climbed it so quickly that I was able to post a photo to Facebook of myself enjoying a summit beer a 9.35am (which garnered almost as many likes as the one I’d posted to say I’d climbed Everest, and was certainly easier to set up).
On the Monday we spent a full day on a much more strenuous hike up two remote Munros, Creag Mhor and Beinn Sheasgarnaich. It was a long day, rendered doubly tiring by the almost total absence of path – and frustrating when I split my trousers leaping a deer fence. On the Tuesday we had a ‘rest day’ by climbing Stuc an Lochan, another Munro that you can race up and down in almost no time at all. This time it took us just 3 hours 45 minutes.
By the time it got to Wednesday, we felt in pretty good shape. The weather was going to be glorious all day. It was time for the Big Three, and there was another special reason for doing so. If we bagged them all, then the third one, An Stuc, would be my 141st Munro out of 282 – the halfway point.
It was going to be a big day, so we decided to make an early start, leaving the hikers’ car park at the Ben Lawers Hotel at 7am, sufficiently early to have the trail to ourselves. We walked down the road, then up a farm track into woodland.
The ascent started with a nice, shady wooded section through a young forest of birch and mountain ash. All of a sudden, there was a wonderful view when the path emerged from woodland at a stile. To our left, the Lawers Burn, which drained from Lochan nan Cat 400m above us, formed a steep cleft in the hillside. To its right the path lay up a sea of emerald grassland to the rounded summit of Meall Greigh.
Our first Munro of the day didn’t look so high above us, but before we began to climb it I made a rather stupid navigational error. ‘Don’t follow the path which descends into the deep gully of the Lawers Burn,’ our guidebook said. Of course not: we could see that the way up Meall Greigh was a gentle grassy hillside with nothing in between. Why would you descend into a deep gully when you will only need to climb back out of it?
The answer: because the path took us down there and we followed it, despite the route description and the evidence before our eyes. It then went across a bridge and up the other side in completely the wrong direction. We were faced with a steep scramble up bracken-clad slopes to get out of the gully, then a stomp across long grass to regain the trail up Meall Greigh.
Once back on the trail the going was easy and we made good time. As we climbed higher, a full view of the Ben Lawers horseshoe opened out to our left. Meall Garbh looked like an elongated plateau, while An Stuc was a rather more prominent triangle jutting up in the middle.
An Stuc was only elevated to the status of a Munro by the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1997, after hillwalkers complained that it was more of a hill than its shapeless neighbour. Referring to this controversy, my guidebook described An Stuc as ‘the finest peak in the whole Lawers range’. I couldn’t argue with it about the trail down into the Lawers Burn, but as my eye followed the ridgeline up to the towering summit of Ben Lawers, I couldn’t help observing that the finest peak in this particular panorama was quite clearly Ben Lawers itself. Did An Stuc have more secrets to reveal when we got round to climbing it?
The view got me thinking in another way. Our intention had been to descend from the col beyond An Stuc into the corrie of Lochan nan Cat. Not only did this descent look steep, but it also looked like a retreat. The route would clearly be incomplete unless we crowned it all off by going over the top of Ben Lawers as well. I’d been concerned about my fitness, but we were making such good time that it seemed like a realistic enough possibility. Could the Big Three become the Big Four?
I could see three figures approaching on the slopes below us. They were moving so rapidly that I expected them catch us before the first summit. Our pace was quicker than I imagined though.
I knew that as soon as I mentioned Ben Lawers to Edita it would be a done deal. We reached the first summit, Meall Greigh, at only 9.15, our earliest summit yet. It seemed a safe enough moment to commit to the Big Four. Edita was happy. Meall Greigh was such an outlier from the rest of the group that it was detached from the main horseshoe of Ben Lawers, An Stuc and Meall Garbh. We could now see these three ringed in perfect splendour around the midnight blue of Lochan nan Cat, spilling the Lawers Burn into the valley beneath us.
We were going well, and after a few quick summit photos we decided to continue without stopping. Meall Greigh may be an outlier, but we rapidly covered the distance across gentle grassland to the Lairig Innein, the boggy col which divides it from Meall Garbh, leaving our three chasers far behind.
Here we discovered that there wasn’t much reascent to the top of our second Munro. As we plodded more measuredly up its grassy flanks another crazy idea started to form in my head – why don’t we continue beyond Ben Lawers to Beinn Ghlas and do five Munros in a day? The idea was fleeting and I swatted it away like a midge. I knew it would mean returning back over Ben Lawers for a second time, which would be crazier than crazy, especially when we’re yet to climb our second Munro.
I turned my thoughts back to Meall Garbh. The ascent levelled off, and we reached its unusual summit of two parallel ridges. We skirted beneath the first one and continued to the second, which contains the true summit.
We reached the top at 10.30. Here we had our first view of An Stuc, the fearsome scramble that I was expecting to be the crux of the day. It was much smaller than I expected – hardly a peak at all and more like a craggy bump on the ridge. If Sir Hugh’s decision to leave this off his list of Munros was controversial, then people need to chill out more. In fact, there are only 126m of reascent from Meall Garbh.
I became even less daunted as we descended to the col between Meall Garbh and An Stuc. Although An Stuc was steep, I could see that it was also quite grassy. I could even see a path zigzagging up its lower half. Most of it was a walk. Mr Daunt hadn’t shown up. The peak was so undaunting that we didn’t even stop for the snack we’d been intending to have before the final assault. Scrambling? A scrambled egg would have frightened me more than this.
We continued straight up the steep zigzags with Edita in the lead. The scrambling section was no more than 10m before we returned to the path and walked the rest of the way up. It was so straightforward that we didn’t even need to put our poles away. I could probably have done it without hands. By 11.15 we were on the summit of An Stuc having completed the Big Three while the sun was still rising.
Ben Lawers now lay before us, a much more substantial summit than any we’d climbed so far. But peering above its right shoulder, Beinn Ghlas now looked more tempting too. The crazy idea that brushed past me as we climbed Meall Garbh had now become a fully forged plan. It was no surprise when I mentioned it to Edita and her eyes lit up. I could have suggested six more Munros and a bike ride to Perth and she’d be enthusiastic.
We stopped on the summit of An Stuc and had our first sandwich of the day. The sky was completely cloudless and the air was clear as glass. But now I had committed myself to a much longer day. We still had a 300m climb to Ben Lawers and a 1,000m descent to the car, even without the extra mountain of Beinn Ghlas. We had plenty of food, but I thought back to my dehydration on Beinn Liath Mhor the previous week and knew that I’d need to nurse my last two litres of water – or heaven forbid we might reach the urine-drinking stage.
The ascent to Ben Lawers was the first time that I started to feel tired. We were now completing the circle around the bowl of Lochan nan Cat. The lake twinkled beneath us in the bright midday light, but my attention was focused on the summit cairn above me and the distance between. Ben Lawers was much higher than the peaks surrounding it, and the climb was much longer. The sun beat down as I plodded slowly upwards, Edita racing some distance ahead of me. When an elderly couple passed us on the way down, the only other people we’d seen beside the three figures behind us, I was too tired to muster a conversation.
I reached the two summit cairns at 12.15. Edita had been waiting there at least 5 minutes. The view was magnificent – it’s the only place where you can see all eight summits of the Ben Lawers group, the three in a line behind us, and the four in front on separate ridges. Beinn Ghlas was much lower, but only a short distance away to its right, Meall Corranaich and Meall a Choire Leith formed a subsidiary ridge. It would certainly be possible to link them up and do seven Munros in a day, but you’d need transport at the other end to take you back to the Ben Lawers Hotel. I didn’t suggest it to Edita.
We pressed on, believing that we’d be back on Ben Lawers later in the afternoon. We were on the tourist trail now. Dozens of people sweated up the track as we descended. One young woman was out of breath and foolishly started a conversation about Munros that she soon regretted.
‘That’s the third Munro over there,’ she said, pointing somewhere between Meall Corranaich and Beinn Ghlas.
I didn’t know what she meant by the ‘third Munro’. I pointed out the eight Munros in the group to her and explained that we’d been up four of them already today. She looked tired and bamboozled and I could see her brain working in slow motion. The poor lady was only being friendly and had obviously not expected to find herself in a conversation with some Munro bore.
I smiled and let her go. ‘But that’s the highest one,’ I said, pointing up Ben Lawers. She looked relieved to see us depart.
From the Ben Lawers side, Beinn Ghlas is another one of those Munros sufficiently small that you’d not be surprised had Sir Hugh left it off his list. It wasn’t much of a climb, but the descent from Ben Lawers was long and I realised that it made no sense for us to climb all the way back up in the hot sun, only to descend 1,000m again. It would be better to make our escape somewhere down the slopes to our left.
We paused briefly for summit snaps on the innocuous dusty top of Beinn Ghlas. We could see more big groups approaching along the tourist trail. Just to the south was a grassy shoulder where we could avoid the crowds and stop for a quiet second lunch and a well-deserved trail beer. It was still only just after 1 o’clock and we had the whole afternoon to descend.
I couldn’t quite believe that only a week earlier I’d been crawling with exhaustion over a single Munro, and now we’d climbed five Munros by lunchtime.
I knew that trackless descents could be tiring and I hoped we’d find a trail somewhere lower down that would make our return a whole lot easier. As we rested, gazing down the gully that divided us from Ben Lawers and drained into the waters of narrow Loch Tay 1,000m beneath us, I fished out my Ordnance Survey map to look for a return route.
Tracing the gully, I could see some old shielings (abandoned shepherds’ buildings) and a dam marked on the map around 500m below us. I was delighted to see that if we descended to the dam then we could join a clear track that contoured the east side of Ben Lawers at 500m and rejoined our ascent route at the Lawers Burn. To reach this path we had only to descend to the burn that spilled down from the col between Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas.
From our lunch spot I could see that this was an easy grassy hillside. Sure enough, we raced down it, surprising a few sheep that were grazing on its slopes.
‘They’re making a lot of noise,’ Edita said. ‘What do they want?’
‘Grass,’ I replied. ‘Or else they’re warning each other of the nasty human coming to turn them into lamb chops.’
The gully would probably have been boggy most times of the year, but today conditions were incredibly dry. We crossed the burn and descended thick grass for a couple of hundred metres to reach the trail marked on the map. It turned out to be a good firm 4WD track that serviced the water pipeline. We had an easy walk along it for 3km to reach our ascent route. Ben Lawers was high above us and out of sight, but we had nice view of the Tay valley beneath us to the right, the endless ribbon of the loch tapering into the distance.
We were a bit frustrated when the track start curling back round to the north in the opposite direction to our car, so we took another shortcut down grassy slopes to reach the Lawers Burn at the footbridge where I’d cocked up my navigation earlier in the day. We rested here and downed our last few mouthfuls of water. It was torture watching the fresh water tumble past, knowing that we couldn’t drink it. I made a mental note to remember purification tablets next time; then we could drink as much as we needed.
But no matter. After a short rest we zoomed down the last 45 minutes back to the road, completing the full circuit of five Munros in just nine hours. And to think my guidebook had estimated 7-10 hours for just the Big Three. My fitness was fully repaired from the dilapidated state it had been in the previous week. We’d probably had the ideal training regime with a tough walk 2 days ago (that had felt much tougher than this one) sandwiched by two easy rest-day Munros. It was just like old times again.
You can see all my photos of our week exploring the Ben Lawers group on Flickr.