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Agony and ecstasy on Ben Cruachan, inside and out.

Agony and ecstasy on Ben Cruachan, inside and out.

Postby KeithS » Mon Oct 06, 2014 11:56 pm

Route description: Ben Cruachan and Stob Daimh

Munros included on this walk: Ben Cruachan, Stob Daimh

Date walked: 07/07/2014

Time taken: 9 hours

Distance: 14 km

Ascent: 1370m

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I believe in being thorough, especially as I have not put a walk report on here for some time. As such this is a report of Ben Cruachan from both inside and out.

The plan for the day was for Jane to tackle the mountain from the inside whilst I took the more conventional approach, as usually described on this site, on the outside. As is turned out the weather in the morning was wet and uninviting. As such, with the weather forecast promising a better afternoon, both Jane and I were sat on the Cruachan Power Station minibus whilst Christian, the guide, lectured us with astronomical figures relating to tons of water being pumped up and down the inside of the mountain in response to the population jumping up and down to make cups of tea or microwave pizzas at half time in the world cup or during the advertisements in Coronation Street. Hoping there was not to be a test at the end of the tour we set off down the two thirds of a mile long tunnel dug out in the early 1960s at the cost of over 50 lives (health and safety wasn't quite what it is now back then). We were assured that the water dripping from the roof of the tunnel was not a result of the morning's rain but had actually taken two years to seep through from the surface. Parking up in the heart of the mountain we de-bussed and made our way past the largest fire extinguisher I had ever seen, the size of a shipping container, reassured that it had never been needed to be used in anger. We then walked the final hundred feet or so down a tunnel into a room with a screen at one end which, following more mind numbing figures, taking me back to my physics lessons involving the speed of sound and distances to the moon, Christian, with a theatrical flourish, raised the screen and revealed a man made cavern the area of a football pitch and the height of a seven storey building, containing four massive turbines which could be turned on or off to produce electricity within 28 seconds, as opposed to the week needed to fire up a nuclear power station. My attention perked up as Christian explained about the massive dam which had been built a thousand feet above our heads to hold back however many million tons of water he had told us whilst my brain was struggling to hold figures. This water acted as a huge battery to store the potential energy... oh dear, back to physics lessons. The point which caught my attention was that the aforementioned dam was to be my first target later in the day, and it was way above our heads.

Safely back in daylight a short time later, I saw that the weather had perked up and I had no more excuses. I mentioned to the lady on reception at the visitor centre that I was heading up the hill and she suggested using the old route, taking in the southern top of Meall Cuanail, rather than continuing round the loch and up the gully. Agreeing that gaining height early is preferable I opted for this route, accepting a 70m drop at the end of the top as the small price to pay. Before such decisions were to be made however, I had the small task of getting up to the dam. This shouldn't present too much of a problem, surely not. I walked the half mile from where I had parked the camper back up the road to the power station and decided on the path on the right side of the river which makes its way steeply up the hillside towards the dam. As I adhered to the wise advice painted on the bridge to keep my head down as I ducked under the railway I saw a request painted on the far side of the tunnel wall asking walkers to return by the path down the opposite side of the river and thought I would bear this in mind for later. There were a few other walkers who were also heading up, but I was relieved to hear they were only aiming for the dam as their footwear was unsuitable for higher up, including one girl in sandals.

The path was steep and twisting, and wet from the morning's rain. There was damp vegetation aplenty as I climbed through the woods, making the way slippery and not much fun. As I left the other walkers behind, more due to their slow pace, than my quick one, I reached the stile at the top of the trees. This was probably the scariest, most awkward stile I had ever seen, being almost vertical on one side, with big gaps between the steps, leaning to one side and very high. I had to hang onto my walking poles in one hand as I tried to cling onto the slippery pole at the top with the other hand and swing my body over the other side whilst trying, and failing, to retain some dignity, and not fall flat on my back as I descended the thin wet wooden steps, hoping that the others did not catch me up and see my struggles. Fortunately I cleared the stile with both body and dignity intact and thereafter the slope lessened but the quality underfoot worsened.

ImageIMG00462-20140707-2010 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

There was an unpleasant boggy section as the dam wall came into view. I met a young man from Gloucestershire who was on his way down having just completed my anticipated circuit. He was planning on doing the two other Munros in the area in the afternoon, no mean feat and I hope he was successful. He was just short of his 100th Munro and clearly he was keen on challenging days. He did warn me of a section of sloping granite slabs on the descent of ridge to the east of Ben Cruachan which could be a bit tricky, but the rest of the circuit should pose no serious issues.

Having zig-zagged my way through the messy, muddy patch to remain relatively clean I gained the tarmac road which had made its way from the village of Loch Awe, about three miles away and leads to the dam itself. This road looked quite promising for the descent some time ahead, much further but probably easier underfoot when I anticipated being tired after my circuit.

I made my way up to the dam where the walk proper started. The road I was on reached the right side of the dam so I walked it's length which was quite spectacular. Although clearly man-made I find the dam and it's associated reservoir do fit well into the landscape, as is often the case. Others may disagree but I find there are worse intrusions than these man made lakes, or lochs.

There were a couple of walkers at the far end of the dam who were looking upward and appeared to be planning an ascent. I decided on the route I had been advised and the way onto the top appeared quite straightforward. I therefore continued past the end of the dam and straight up onto the hill. I noticed the other couple also set off up the hillside, a little to my right. The conditions were perfect. The rain had stopped and the sun was working it's way through the clouds. The breeze was light and slightly to my back. I gained the rising ridge early and made my way steadily upwards, keeping an eye on the other two who stayed ahead of me. I sometimes like having other people a little way away on a hill, when ascending, using them as a judge of pace, but out of speaking distance. They were a little, but not much, quicker than me and I let them pull me up the hill. The going was easy and the slope was not uncomfortable as the views to both sides improved and extended as I gained height. The cairn at the summit of the top came without too much difficulty and I stopped for a breather and refreshment. The other two were just visible having made their descent and were just starting the final climb to the Munro peak. This was pretty much the last time I saw them other than very distant glimpses later in the day.

The descent to the col where the path from the gorge joined my route was easy and I enjoyed the final pull to the top of Cruachan itself, with the breeze still at my back. I gained the top just before 4.00pm, having started at half past noon so was quite happy with my pace which is never speedy but good enough to leave me plenty of daylight as we were only a couple of weeks after the longest day.

ImageIMG00454-20140707-1617 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

ImageIMG00453-20140707-1606 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

As I sat by the cairn eating my sandwiches, it dawned on me that only 24 hours earlier I had been at work, in Sheffield, about 200yards from the end of the second day stage of the Tour de France (or Tour de Yorkshire as it had been affectionately called locally). What a difference a day makes, as the song goes. The scene there had been so different, hardly the peace and tranquillity, or scenery, which met me now, although the atmosphere in Sheffield was truly exciting, as Yorkshire had embraced the Tour spectacularly, with a wonderful party atmosphere wherever the route went. I had been amazed at the scale of the operation. Even the burger vans had come over from France. It was the first time in Sheffield I had had to order my sausage sandwich in schoolboy French, and believe me the quality was far superior to anything I had eaten locally before.

So now, exactly one day on, and after a drive halfway through the night, I was sat, alone, contemplating, not my navel, but much of Argyl which lay before me. It also dawned on me that this was the highest Munro I had not yet climbed, not particularly by design, but there were no higher peaks yet to be ticked. With no one to share this thought with, I packed up and set off to the east. The way ahead was easy to see. The easternmost top of Cruachan looked remarkably close to my next Munro of the day and, from where I was it seemed strange that it was a top of this mountain, as opposed to part of, indeed if not the next Munro itself, as it was higher than Stob Dearg.

I dropped to the first dip and it was easy to see the slabs of which I had been warned. I could see the potential for difficulty but they were absolutely dry and it was quite possible to just walk across them, a little way to the right of the crest, not a move I would have fancied had they been wet and slippery. I soon made it to a short gully and climbed back up to the ridge itself. The next section was sheer delight, the best possible walking.

ImageIMG00455-20140707-1718 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

ImageIMG00451-20140707-1601 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

The ridge was a little narrow in places, yet never scary. The way ahead was a series of short ups and downs, nothing too steep, or far, either up or down. The weather remained perfect, time was not a problem, and the views were superb. I could see why this circuit was so highly rated, and I thanked my luck that conditions were on my side. What more could a fellow want? I kept checking to my right and could see that, slowly but surely, I was working my way round the reservoir way below me.

ImageIMG00452-20140707-1601 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

All too soon, with a very short diversion from the path, I gained the easternmost top and could now understand the Munro/Top dilemma I had earlier been contemplating. From this point Stob Dearg indeed looked like a separate mountain and I ceded to those who make the sometimes difficult and often controversial decisions, quite correct on this occasion. Looking ahead I could just make out two figures leave the cairn of Stob Dearg and make their way to the top just to it's south, the last time I saw the other couple. They were the only other people I had seen on the hill above the level of the dam all day.

ImageIMG00456-20140707-1719 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

After a short stop to take in the view, I headed quite steeply through the rocks down to the col and then up to the second, and final Munro of the day. It was now 6.00pm so I finished off my food and headed south over the very slightly lower top and continued dropping down the whale-back ridge trying to keep an eye out for a path to take me down to the loch. There either wasn't one, or more likely I missed it and found myself getting a little too near the next rise so I set off cross country heading steeply down towards the water. Shortly before I reached it I picked up a path which I had probably missed earlier and made it back to the end of the dam wall.

ImageIMG00458-20140707-1957 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

What a brilliant circuit, excellent conditions, views, everything. All I had to do now was pop back down to the road at Loch Awe. Which way to go? I didn't want to go down the path I had used to ascend and, tempting though the service road was, with guaranteed easy walking underfoot, it would have added an hour to my walk so I opted for the unknown quantity of the path down the western side of the river which I knew dropped steeply back to the valley. Surely it couldn't be worse than the one on the opposite side. It started quite well, and certainly the top section was not too boggy. I was pleased with my choice.

ImageIMG00464-20140707-2023 by keithmunrobagger, on Flickr

I then met the corresponding stile to the one on the way up. I have to say it was only marginally better than the first and still took some careful negotiation to remain unscathed. Then things started to get more difficult. It appeared that this path had fallen into some neglect. The vegetation became higher and was still wet from the morning's rain. It was a combination of bracken and thorns, with some nettles thrown in for good measure. The way was steep and the path, which I could barely see was beset with slippery rocks and worse, wet roots which made it difficult to remain vertical. I cursed my way down, getting wetter and slipping and stumbling as I went. I kept grabbing onto nearby trees to steady myself as the path came nearer to the ever steepening ravine which carried the river to my left as it tumbled its way down the hillside. My arms were getting prickled by the brambles which I couldn't see. “Keep upright, mind your feet, watch where you are going”, I kept telling myself although this was becoming more and more difficult. Someone had made a token effort to clear the path as some of the trees had recently been cut back but it was still very overgrown. And then the inevitable happened. As I was on a particularly steep section my right foot slipped on a wet root and my left leg buckled under itself and I fell into the wet bracken with a thud. I immediately felt a muscle pull in my upper left leg as I sat on my foot. B****r, I muttered to myself. I stayed where I was for a moment to assess damage. I realised nothing serious, although my leg was quite painful. It does go to show though that care must be taken all the way back to the very end. I had been really careful all round the circuit in the high section whilst working my way through the rocks and now that I was nearly down, and all I wanted was to be back at the camper, I was rushing and losing concentration and that was why I had my slip. I had mentally finished the walk at the dam and was not enjoying the final descent, it was just the means to an end.

I took a moment or two to recover my composure and set off again. After more slipping and sliding and hobbling and moaning and grumbling I made it back to the road and back to the camper for a well deserved shower and glass of wine with my evening meal with Jane.

I reflected on the day. The circuit above the dam was one of the best I have done, certainly south of the Great Glen. The ascent to and descent from the dam was one of the most awkward I have done. Yet on balance this is a great walk, especially with the conditions I had enjoyed for the whole afternoon.

I would like to think I now know Ben Cruachan better than I did before, both inside and out.
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Re: Agony and ecstasy on Ben Cruachan, inside and out.

Postby Johnny Corbett » Tue Oct 07, 2014 9:06 am

Good stuff. I didn't get a good day when i did these two so looking forward to returning one day. It's great having the mobile "home" close by after a day in the hills and sitting down to dinner and wine compared to the long drive back home and a chippy. :D
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Re: Agony and ecstasy on Ben Cruachan, inside and out.

Postby Silverhill » Tue Oct 07, 2014 9:10 pm

A very enjoyable read and informative too about the inside of the mountain. :D
I loved doing these two hills, the ridge in between is just fabulous. I remember that stile on the way up. Gravity is so working against you! :crazy:
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