September has produced some fine weather this year, but the forecast suggested that things were about to change. So on the first Sunday of October, afraid it would be my last chance for a while, I headed up Loch Lomond in the direction of Beinn Dubhchraig and Ben Oss.
I didn’t have anything radical planned – just the usual route from Dalrigh. Follow the burn – the Allt Coire Dubhchraig – all the way up to the ridge; turn left for Beinn Dubhchraig; retrace steps then continue round ridge to Ben Oss; come back to the head of the burn and reverse the upward route. I’d read reports about bog, bog and more bog, so thought I might deviate slightly, perhaps getting onto that northern shoulder of the ridge rather than sticking close to the burn: but I’d decide that when I got there. I’ve not climbed any of the Ben Lui Four, so didn’t know what to expect in the way of terrain.
The cloud was low and thick as I passed through Crianlarich – eschewing the new bypass in favour of a toilet stop – but the forecast promised it would lift. By the time I was striding jauntily out of the carpark at Dalrigh the sun was bright, and the clouds were melting off the hills all around.
I stopped on the old stone bridge and pondered two questions. Was this river the Cononish or the Fillan? The one becomes the other somewhere around the A82, according to the map, presumably after one of the confluences. Or perhaps it becomes the Fillan at St Fillan’s Holy Pool, which seems more likely. Question two: why is this bridge so wide? It looks like a normal old bridge, but you could stick a motorway on top of it. I wondered if it had been widened, keeping its original appearance, but I couldn’t be bothered trauchling underneath it to find out. I was meant to be on a hillwalk, not an archaeological dig…
Across the mystery bridge, I left the tarmac and turned right onto the landrover track which undulates for about a kilometer beside the railway line. To the left are scrubby trees and the railway: to the right, open rough grassland slopes down to the river, studded with strange lumps which I suspect are some sort of effluvial gravel deposits, but I’m no geologist. There were good views up Glen Cononish ahead of me as I walked, with Ben Lui just throwing off its morning cloud cover and emerging into the sunshine.
Then the track crossed the railway and I was out into open moorland and my first proper view of Beinn Dubhchraig. From this angle it is a hill of gentle curves, nowhere near as eye-catching as some of its neighbours. But no hill is a bad hill, and gentle curves might mean a relatively pain-free ascent. A small cairn on the right hand verge of the landrover track marked the path which strikes across the bog towards the river. Remember those reports about bog, bog and more bog? Oh, aye… and this was after weeks of relative dryness.
Muddy but unbowed, I reached the Allt Gleann Auchreoch, and the ‘bridge’. Two iron girders span the stream, separated by five feet of fresh air. To be fair, I knew there was no bridge any more, but it was still pretty frustrating to have its remnants flaunting themselves uncrossably at me. I briefly wondered what would happen if I sat on one of the girders and tried to bum shuffle across. I’m sure braver folk than me have done it. Then I did the sensible thing and crossed just upstream using some nice big boulders. The river is pretty low just now – but this route can’t be an option after a wet spell unless you’re willing to wade it.
Safely on the west bank, I rejoined the path and followed it into the trees. I don’t know what I’d expected from the reports of ‘lovely path winding through remnants of Caledonian Forest’, but it wasn’t this. This was a narrow, muddy, slippery-tree-root path which crashed through face-level bracken and eye-level branches. The sun had disappeared, the air was still and I was sure there were midgies. Then a ked fly landed on me. God, they give me the willies. I began to lose heart, and pushed on (for me) swiftly, propelled by thoughts of ticks, deer keds and midgies. The Allt Coire Dubhchraig chuckled and tinkled away merrily down to my left, sometimes coyly showing me a glimpse of rushing waterfall or dark pool, but I wasn’t in the mood for its charms.
There were some patches of respite when the pine-needle path broadened out and the ancient trees stood tall and grand all around, but all too often it plunged again into bracken, scrub and deep mud. I felt a wave of deep relief when I finally emerged onto the open hillside, tinged by a sense of guilt that I hadn’t fully appreciated the woodland wonders of the Coille Coire Chuilc. A brief check of my outer coverings for ticks registered clear – that was something – and it was time to decide on my next move.
I’d wondered about striking out west to pick up the northern ridge and following it up: it might be drier underfoot, and on the map it didn’t look too hard going. But the path which follows the burn had become almost reasonable in places, and was certainly a more direct route… I gazed upstream. Things got quite steep at the head of the corrie, but only for a short section. May as well keep going…
So upwards I trudged, watching the hill before me disappear into cloud. The path was still a bogfest in places, but much better than the initial section. And now I felt more able to appreciate the burn flowing beside me, an ever-changing and yet constant combination of falling water and peat-brown pools. Much of the rocky stream bed was exposed, and yet the little waterfalls were still impressive. The sound and power of this burn in spate must be awe-inspiring, but the corresponding bog factor underfoot in wet conditions is, I imagine, sufficient to make the unfortunate plodder care not a jot about the beauty of mountain streams.
I stopped on a levelish plateau at around the 650m mark for Lunch Part One. A man and boy overtook me, and I watched them beginning the steep part of the corrie. It didn’t appear too bad. But my eye was drawn to the left, where the north-east shoulder of the hill made what seemed to be a gentle ascent towards what was presumably the summit (but for now was just a big grey cloud). There were some small rocky outcrops to pick around, but it looked do-able. And it looked a lot less steep than straight ahead…
But Man and Boy were making swift progress, and at least I was currently on a path, and my adventure mojo seemed to have gone awol, so I decided to stick to the plan. Onwards, upwards: it wasn’t as gruelling as I feared. In fact, it was actually quite a nice route, accompanied by the ever-present sound of the burn and the occasional bark of a raven. There were four or five of them, although I only saw them all together once – perhaps a family group, ma and pa raven with this year’s teenagers still cluttering up the nest and being a drain on resources. Playing their Black Crowes cds too loud, and – stop! Get on with the walk…
Nearly on the bealach now. The burn had been absorbed into the turf, and up ahead was a small cairn. I guessed it marked the point where this path met the Ben Oss path, but when I reached it there was nothing – just a second cairn a bit further up. And then, at that next pile of stones, I found I’d popped out onto the bealach and was standing on a much broader, defined path. Ahead, cloud-shrouded, lay a couple of lochans, and beyond them grey-white nothingness. I turned left, as per the plan, and headed up towards the summit of Beinn Dubhchraig.
I met Man and Boy on their way back down, and enquired about visibility. Man said it had briefly cleared up the top, and they’d had a good view of a big loch – was it Loch Lomond? I confirmed their identification and bid them farewell, wondering if I’d be so lucky. Somehow I doubted it.
What do you know? I was right! I sat in the lee of the summit cairn (which has been cunningly sculpted to form a curved sheltering wall, rather than a not-very-useful heap of stones) for about half an hour, eating Lunch Part Two and listening to the raven sounds coming out of the cloud. And all the while I was not looking at the view, I was weighing up my next move. It was now the back of three. I’d calculated that to add on Ben Oss would take me the best part of two hours. The cloud showed no signs of shifting, so I’d see as much of Ben Oss as I was currently seeing of Beinn Dubhchraig. (I know this wouldn’t phase a lot of folk, but one of the main reasons I struggle up hills is to gawp in admiration at the endless vistas. To knock my pan in doing two Munros with nary a view from either of them is, to me, verging on pointless). And it would almost certainly be dark by the time I was coming back through the woods, with their tick/midgie/ked infestation; the slippery, narrow path hugging the deep gully of the burn; and then the river crossing.
Discretion. Valour. Ben Oss will still be there another day. I resigned myself to a mission only half accomplished, and began my retreat. Shortly below the summit I stopped and gazed west towards what should have been Ben Oss, but was instead a determined blanket of white. Suddenly from behind me I heard a loud thwap-thwap like the start of Apocolypse Now, and a raven whooshed over my head, about six feet up, then curved and banked summitwards to see if I’d left any lunch. Soon afterwards I heard its disapproving kronk as it realised I hadn’t.
After pondering various options, I descended exactly the same way I’d come up. It wasn’t a day for unfettered exploration, somehow. The way through the woods was more pleasant on the way down, perhaps because I knew what to expect. The old pines are truly beautiful, and the damp air is filled with the scent of resin as you walk. I expected to encounter Midgie Hell, but a slight breeze picked up just when I needed it, and there may also have been just enough chill in the air to keep them tucked up in bed. The river crossing was uneventful, and even the big bog didn’t claim me.
I walked back to the van with views of Beinn Challum ahead, the scent of peat smoke heavy on the evening air, and the lightness of heart that comes from a day well spent.
It hadn’t been the walk I’d planned, and during the initial stages my heart really wasn’t in it and I almost wished I’d stayed at home. But it turned into a fairly enjoyable venture, and now I’m left with the interesting problem of what route to take up Ben Oss…