The minimum goal for the day were Ben Lui and Beinn a' Chleibh. To make it a worthy last hiking day of my trip to Scotland, I intended to include Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhcraigh as well, if my legs permitted it after the encounter with the ghost and the long and strenuous walk on the day before. Deep in the back of my mind I already knew that I would do it, but of course you have at least to pretend to be sensible when going to the hills.
I set out early directly from By the Way, with a little detour via the Green Welly Stop to buy my water, breakfast, lunch and the mandatory banana (never leave without one!). I looped almost back to By the Way via a short section of the West Highland Way, but instead of heading back to bed, I turned right and crossed the railway to take the track leading to the Cononish valley. Progress was good in the fresh morning air, and after a while I caught the first glimpses of Ben Lui, still covered by a little shroud of clouds.
When I arrived in the Cononish valley, the view opened up and I admired the hills around me. The further I proceeded, the more I saw of the majesty of Ben Lui. A table-like rock invited me to have breakfast on it, and I had my "last-day-luxury" breakfast with an excellent croissant. Having lived in France for 11 years now, I can tell you that the Green Welly Stop's croissants don't have to hide, they taste just as good as the French ones.
Passing the gold mine, I followed the track right to the foot of Ben Lui, 7.5 km and 1h45 from the start - I would need another 1h45 for the next 2.5 km up the summit roughly 750 m higher up...
I hadn't seen a single other person until now, neither in front of me nor behind me. Sheltered in an angle of a drystone wall, there was a small tent, but nobody to be seen. The climb up the now cloud-free Ben Lui alongside a small stream, the Allt Coire Ghaothaich, was steep but easy on a small path. Still, it was a relief to finally reach the Coire Gaothach, where the ground was less steep for a while. Here, I lost the path (and it wouldn't be the last time for today) and proceeded directly uphill towards the Northern flank. This was a strenuous section, turning from grass to scree, and I was glad to eventually find the path again that led me up the ridge.
From there, I spotted the path I had missed, and a young couple coming up it in the distance who had obviously been able to find it. Higher up on the ridge leading to the summit, I saw two men coming down, and after a short break I started climbing up the narrow path to meet them.
Along the path, the mountain surprised me by sending out innumerable squadrons of midges - the first (and last, luckily) I encountered today, and in the least expected place. When I met the two descending men, they told me they were equally surprised, and that even the summit was firmly in the claws of the midges. I went on to verify, and it was true - swarms of midges even up here. Passing the Northern summit, I finally reached the real summit and instantly forgot about the midges - what a fantastic view from up here!
In the Southwest, Ben a' Chleibh much further below - what a harmless hill from up here! Behind it, the Northern end of Loch Awe shimmering in the light, and the Ben Cruachan massif to the right of it, begging to be climbed. Patience - your time will come, too. To the East, the Cononish valley spreading out far below me, Beinn Dubhchraig and Ben Oss further to the right, followed by a tiny bit of Loch Lomond and a vast empty space up to Beinn a' Chleibh. A light breeze, comfortable temperature, and a joy of achievement that every time I climb a hill gives the answer to the inevitable questions "Why am I doing this?" and "Why am I here?" during ascent.
I stepped to the edge of the rocky ledge and looked down the Central Gully to Coire Geothach. How steep! - And some people actually walk up here! Climbing - no questions asked. But walking? My deepest respect (and just the slightest shake of the head) for those who do and did. The day before, I read this fantastic report by algorhythm who writes of the Central Gully
From the bottom it didn't look all that bad and mathematically was the shortest distance so seemed the logical way to go but as I got higher I noticed I had strayed a long way from the sensible hillwalkers path!
I had his words in my mind all morning, and his report as a warning. But already the first time a saw the Central Gully from way below in the valley, I thought "no way!"...
We all know that the world is small, and if you look hard enough, you can find a link between any two events. While writing this, I discovered that on the very day algorhythm did his memorable Tyndrum Four walk, I was looking up at him (though not seeing him, not knowing he was there or even existed) and dreamt of walking these hills.
Here's my photo of the same day (2014-09-20), passing by on the West Highland Way with my wife:
When I put my camera away, the young couple arrived on the summit, and we exchanged a few words. They also wanted to go on as long as their feet allowed it, so we said "see you soon" instead of goodbye.
The way down Ben Lui, across the saddle and on (I refuse to call it "up") to Beinn a' Chleibh was easy, interrupted only by a battery change for the GPS.
The summit of Beinn a' Chleibh was occupied by two ladies having their lunch, so I found a nice rock to sit down and had my lunch as well, waiting to have the summit for myself to perform Zata's Secret Summit Ritual alone. Not easy on such a fine day, and of course the young couple arrived at precisely the moment the ladies left - and started having a long lunch as well. In the end, I spent one hour (!) on the summit before being able to do the ritual.
Halfway down, I noticed that I forgot to take a photo of myself on the summit - another 15 minutes gone for the return trip back to the summit.
In the back of my mind, it was already clear from the start that I would do all four Munros today. Now I "officially" admitted this to myself - it wouldn't make sense at all to climb back up Ben Lui and go down the steep Eastern side again for the long and level walk out of the Cononish valley. The couple had the same reasoning and was already out of sight when I tackled what I thought to be the hardest part of the trip - without path across the grassy lower slopes of Ben Lui to the saddle between Ben Lui and Ben Oss.
Walking across a slope, always going the same direction without any level ground to put the feet on, is very hard on one's feet, with the strain always on the same side. The distance was about 2 km, and there were many streams to cross. I also wanted to arrive at the saddle at its altitude, so I had to take care not to climb too high or go down too low. In places, it was difficult to pick the right course, as the slope was quite rugged. Luckily, I found some helpful guides - two sheep that walked the same way and kept a constant distance to me, and were way better in choosing a path than I was. Sadly, after two thirds of the way, they decided to go straight up the slope and started to graze, so I was forced to go on without them.
All the time I thought my judgement of altitude was rather good, but I reached the saddle a surprising 80 to 100 metres above it.
On the other side, I saw the couple already walking up towards Ben Oss on what seemed to be a nice little path. I started following the path, but soon lost it again. This happened twice again, and each time I spent too much time looking for the path. Finally, I decided to forget about the concept of "path" and went straight up to the summit of Ben Oss, with a wonderful view of Ben Lui, Loch Oss, Beinn Dubhchraig, Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond, which I now could admire in its full glory after the foggy day out two years ago. A group of four other hillwalkers had just left the summit, disappearing behind a ledge.
While I was enjoying the view, I heard quick footsteps and someone panting behind me, and a guy came running up Ben Oss. When he had regained his breath, we had a nice long talk about hillwalking, climbing and running (which is not really my thing). It had taken him only 2.5 hours for the same way that I did in 7.5 hours... When I asked him how much water he carried he answered "None, I rely on the streams I find". When he had gone on, I felt very bad about not having offered him any water - I had already drunk my 2 litres almost entirely with only a mouthful left which I rather egoistically wanted to save for myself for the long descent after Beinn Dubhchraig.
With the last Munro for the day always in sight, I walked on feeling lighthearted, even though Bealach Buidhe was further down than I expected and Beinn Dubhchraig further away than I had hoped for. There was no sight of the young couple or the runner, but I met the group of four on the summit of Beinn Dubhchraig. One of them was Australian, and we found out he lives not too far away from my Australian cousin (well, for Australian standards at least).
After the fourth and last summit ritual, I went back down to Bealach Buidhe and expected the worst - the walk description promised a very boggy path. However, there were only a few and not too boggy sections. The walk down the slopes was pleasant, as was the section through what apparently is one of the few remaining patches of native pinewood forest in this part of the Highlands.
When I finally reached the place where the Allt Gleann Auchreoch joins the Cononish, the bridge across the Allt Gleann Auchreoch was gone. I was so thrilled to find that the stream could easily be crossed due to its low water level that I just did it without looking at the map first. This stupid negligence did not go without punishment, as I was soon to find out.
On the other side of the river, I walked along the edge of a boggy field next to the railroad embankment. To my horror, I saw, through the trees, the Australian's group of four walking on the railway bridge to cross the river Cononish. I hoped that there would be no train arriving anytime soon! I joined a track beside the field and crossed the railway on a bridge. The track led straight to the East, whereas Tyndrum was directly to the North of here.
Finally I took out the map which revealed to me that I had to walk a detour of almost 2 km to get back to Tyndrum! I should not have crossed the Allt Gleann Auchreoch, but the Cononish instead! I briefly considered turning back, but from here, going back would be just as long as proceeding, so I went on. As soon as I had stowed away the map, a train arrived. I looked back to see if a should give the train driver a warning, but the group was no longer on the railway bridge - they were on the bridge crossing the railway now, and apparently debating which way to go. All seemed to be fine, so I went on. The track made a loop, crossing the Cononish at Drochaid Bhan. There was a sign for those going up the hills from Dalrigh that the Allt Gleann Auchreoch was washed away.
Behind the bridge, I joined the West Highland Way and began to walk along the comfortable path to Tyndrum. In a bend behind Dalrigh, just past the bridge across the Crom Allt, I heard voices ahead of me, and soon saw ... the group of four walking towards me. We were all mightily surprised how each of us ended up here going in opposite directions. They had forded the Cononish near the railway bridge and were looking for the way to Dalrigh where they had left their car - I could reassure them that they were on the right way and Dalrigh was not far away.
The rest of the walk was without events, and I was very happy when I reached the By the Way after 31 km and 11 hours of walking with 2266 m of height difference.
An excellent fish and chips meal at the Real Food Cafe topped the day off, and I was extremely happy with the day and with the general outcome of my first "Munro trip" to Scotland - nine Munros on four walking days in a week for which the weather forecast had been more than disastrous.
I am looking forward very much to the next trip, hopefully next year, and the little adventures to come.