Where does time go? A year ago, after a big gap in my hillwalking, I climbed a couple of Munros as a birthday treat to myself. It reminded me how much I love being in the hills, and I promised myself that I would make more time to get out. Then life chucked a few spanners in the works, and the past year has been a bit crazy. Total hillwalks: nil!
A couple of weeks ago, my birthday rolled around once more. And as life has settled a bit, it seemed reasonable to begin a tradition: on every birthday of my fifties, I shall go out and climb a big hill. Cruach Ardrain got the honour, and it was good, but I didn’t feel inspired to write a report. Maybe I’ll do a retrospective…
What it did inspire me to do, though, is to bloody well make the effort and not leave it yet another year before my next hill! My ambition, before my next birthday, is to have climbed all the Munros in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Why?
1: I’m not sure I’ll ever do all 282 Munros (or even want to), so I may as well set myself some other target.
- I’m lucky enough to live in the Park, so walking its Munros seems an obvious aim. There’s only 21 of them, after all, and Cruach Ardrain was my 11th.
So the other day I headed off Ben Challumwards. Why Ben Challum? The short answer would be, why not? The long answer – a study of my remaining targets suggested that most of them are best done in pairs, and I didn’t fancy a really big day out. I’d already backed off from Beinn Tulaichean when I climbed Cruach Ardrain on my birthday, leaving it for another day and another approach (Inverlochlarig), and I didn’t want to do another hill which had a close neighbour to tempt or taunt me.
Ben Challum seemed the perfect choice. I parked in the layby across from Kirkton Farm, and was soon standing on the wooden bridge gazing into the brown shallows of the Fillan.
The early autumn sun was warm, the swallows were swooping over the water, and all was well with my world. Walking up the tarmac road to the farm I had beautiful moody views of the Crianlarich hills on one side…
…and bumble bees busying themselves in the woundwort on the other:
I was waylaid by St Fillans Priory, and spent some time poking around in the ruins. I was disturbed to find some wads of soggy toilet roll behind the walls – you shouldn’t have to worry about where you’re putting your feet when exploring an Augustinian priory. Don’t be minging, folks.
Eventually I remembered I was supposed to be hillwalking, so I bade St Fillan farewell and headed up the track between the graveyards. Lying on the verge near the second cemetery (the one with two large pine trees rising startlingly from its centre) was an abandoned walking jacket. I’ve put some details of it on the ‘lost and found’ thread in this site’s forum. Just before the railway line I met a guy descending, wearing just a t-shirt – aha! But no, it wasn’t his. Whose was it? It had an air about it of having been spread carefully on the grass, as if to be sat upon; not a casually dropped heap. Very mysterious.
After I crossed the railway (which I did take photos of, but am not posting, because you must all be sick of pictures of those train tracks by now) I decided that it was far too warm to have my own jacket on, so I paused to get some layers off. While faffing about, I was surprised by the beauty of the lowly dung fly when it’s not sitting on a pile of dung. They’re actually really pretty!
And then, at last, it was time to strike out onto the hill. Now, I’d read all the stuff about bogfests and quagmires and general unpleasantness, so I had no intention of heading straight up beside the forestry plantation. I recalled reading somebody’s report which said they’d followed the track for a bit as it contoured west around the hill, and then cut upwards from there, and that had worked well. Seemed a good plan, so west I went.
I did wonder how far I should follow the track, but I soon came upon signs of a faint path. Other folk have evidently had the same idea. It’s not blindingly obvious, but if you keep your eyes open you’ll see it. It lies below a conspicuous patch of scree-type quarry-sort-of-thing on the hillside. It looked good, so off I went.
It was a steepish haul, but not too terrible. The path was faint but visible – sometimes I wondered if it was just a sheep track, but it was going in the general direction I had in mind (upwards) and was mostly dry underfoot. Good views began to open up. The sky was clouding over, and an intermittent breeze kept me from overheating completely. As is ever the case, the way ahead wasn’t clear – too many ups and downs, with no idea if the hillock in front of you is going to give way to some sort of view of where you’re going. But I knew I had generally the right idea.
A big lump of a hummock blocked my view. I knew from the map that after the initial haul uphill, the ground flattened out somewhat, before the final pull towards the summits. Should I skirt round this lump and hope that I wasn’t heading too far west, or should I struggle up the damn thing in case that’s the correct direction? Suffering, as always, from bear-went-over-the-mountain syndrome, I struggled up it.
As it turned out, I could have skirted round it… but I did find a beautiful slab of rock to recline on and have lunch, with good views towards Crianlarich:
And on the other side, up Glen Cononish:
Much revived by food and tea, I bounced back down my grassy knoll and picked up the path again. Now it began to follow a fence line, but definitely not the one in the route descriptions: this one was cutting in from the west. And after one more steep pull, I emerged onto the peaty plateau with its welcome respite from the vertical, and – at last! – my first sight of Ben Challum. Quite soon my path joined a bigger path, and turning north I felt that I was possibly now on the ‘proper’ route.
The plateau rose up to become a gentle hill, on which I managed to take a grazing and inattentive sheep completely by surprise.
And beyond it – ah! What’s this? The inevitable down-and-up-again nature of Scottish hillwalking… why is the final stretch always separated from the rapidly-tiring walker by a great huge gully? Still, it provided some good scenery.
I had a quick chat with a couple on their way back down (not their jacket either) and then stomped off on the final upwards haul. The path by this time is more of a rocky stream – and that’s after a long dry spell. I expect on some days you’d feel like a salmon fighting its way to the spawning grounds. Then a tiny drama mid-path caught my eye:
I gently used a bit of grass to separate the protagonists, and discovered three harvestmen munching away on – well, I don’t know what. The remains of something. And there seem to be a couple of spider mites thrown into the mix for good measure. A miniature horror movie at my feet. I walked off and let them get on with it.
After a few scenically-weathered fence stobs…
…I reached the first summit cairn at the 998 spot height, and the intriguing mini ridge walk to the true top:
Amazing how having your final goal in sight rejuvenates you! I fairly trotted along that ridge and up the final ascent, burning thighs and gasping lungs completely forgotten. Summit cairn reached, I duly admired the surrounding views:
And now it was decision time… while planning the walk, I had three routes in mind. Plan A was the most simple – straight up and straight back down. Pros: quick, easy, the generally accepted route. Cons: a bit boring. I don’t really like coming back the way I went up. Plan B was to achieve the summit and then drop down into Gleann a’Chlachain, hope I could cross the river easily, get onto the landrover track on the other side, and follow it out to Auchtertyre and then back to Kirkton. Pros: Loops are nice. And once on the track I’d cover ground quickly. Cons: I knew there was a fenced-off tree plantation at the head of the glen – how fenced-off? And would the river be easy? What about getting down off the hill? Plan C was wildly ambitious: carry on from Ben Challum to Cam Chreag and then Ben Chaorach, completing the horseshoe and finally dropping down the south side of Ben Chaorach to pick up the landrover track. Pros: Loops are nice. Cons: 300 meters of descent/reascent to get to Cam Chreag…
It didn’t take long to dismiss Plan C, albeit a tad reluctantly. It would take too long, and I didn’t think I had much upwards left in me. I eyed the rejected hills wistfully while pondering the other options. I really didn’t want to retrace my steps. The urge to strike out on my own was strong. But the slope into the glen was steep, and I would be slow. Sunset wasn’t that far away… however, I would definitely be at least on the track by dark, and navigation after that would be simple. I stared down the scree slopes at the Allt Gleann a’Chlachain, glinting in the late sunlight…
I think in all honesty, I knew from the moment I stepped out of the van that I was going to implement Plan B. It was quite steep, and it took forever to pick my way down across the boulders and then onto the steep grass beyond.
Things weren’t helped by the midgies! I stopped just long enough to grab a hat out of my rucksack – cursing my lack of foresight and complete absence of midgie repellent – and then overheated for the rest of the descent. But at least I no longer had nibbly things in my hair. At length I reached a low fence, which was easily negotiated, and found myself in the tree plantation. I was following the burn though, and the tiny young saplings were sparse – no hindrance. So far, so good…
As I reached the river and began prospecting for a crossing, the midgies came out in force. Aaargh. Just – aaargh! I ran up and down the bank flailing my arms and whimpering, spotted some stepping stones and was across, gazelle-like, before my brain even registered what my feet were doing. And now I couldn’t see the track – but it couldn’t be far. I hacked my way through tussocks of heather and spongy bog, and weaved between young pines. The midgies were still with me, the slope was steep, my legs ached and I couldn’t stop. Why the hell did I not just go back the sensible way? Eventually I saw a scar in the hillside above me. Was it the track? Oh please, please, please…
Oh yes, yes, yes! At last I could comfortably outpace the bloodsuckers. The track was a bit overgrown initially, but soon I came to a gate and beyond that it was well-used. There were good views of where I’d been on the walk out:
And some good skies to finish off the day:
The track passed under the railway – a fine Victorian bridge, but the light was too poor for photography by then – and popped out at Strathfillan Wigwams. From there it was a short walk along the West Highland Way back to Kirkton. The mystery jacket may or may not still be there – I didn’t have the energy to go and look. A quick dash across the A82 – dark by now – and the relief of finding my van still parked and still intact. Boots off, last of the pieces eaten, and then the drive home listening to REM and thinking what a grand day out it had been!