I took on the challenge of running four Munros in the Arrochar Alps, Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain. This article was published in The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy a Scots Magazine, or a subscription?
Running four Arrochar Alps
When a friend suggested that my husband Gordon and I join her for a run in the Arrochar Alps, close to Glasgow, we were wise enough to check the statistics first.
Jamie Aarons, an accomplished endurance athlete, was building up to an extreme mountain race in Italy and I suspected the Scottish training day would be mild in comparison, but still outside my comfort zone.
She had picked a classic mountain route – also the focus of a hill race – to reach the four high summits of Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain. The distance would be around 16 miles plus an ascent of 8000ft.
Gordon and I had already walked each of the mountain individually, so we knew just how steep and rough the ups and downs would be.
And while some of the outing in the Arrochar Alps, located around the head of lochs Long, Fyne, and Goil, would be on paths, there were plenty of sections where we would be tramping through deep heather and navigating by compass bearing.
Despite all these facts, we somehow found ourselves agreeing.
Did you know?: The four mountains are Munros. The mountain classification refers to the 282 summits in Scotland that are 3000ft or higher.
A challenge from the start
To form a circuit over the four peaks, each between 3005ft and 3316ft tall, we started at a car park at Inveruglas on the west shore of Loch Lomond.
A short run south on pavement on the A82 took us to the start of a rough track heading west. The track was built as part the Loch Sloy hydro-electric power scheme some 80 years ago.
The first climb was short but steep to reach around 300ft, before the trail eased to more of an undulating rise. Still, the first 1.5 miles included a muscle-stressing gain of 650ft.
Already doubts about my fitness and stamina were creeping in as Jamie seemed to skip easily uphill, while chatting non-stop.
We all laughed as her dogs, Pirate and Hope, ran backwards and forwards, ahead and behind, covering more than twice, or even three times, our distance.
Thankfully, as we turned north-easterly on to a mountain path, the speed reduced. However, this was only because the gradient was so steep ands rocky – and instead we hiked relentlessly uphill.
Again, Jamie appeared to dance upwards. Following on behind her, Gordon and I stopped talking and focused on keeping up.
Having started close to sea level, by 1500ft elevation and having climbed half the height of Ben Vorlich, my leg muscles were painful with lactic acid and I was breathing hard.
There is very little let up in the gradient of Ben Vorlich and with thick cloud now descending around us it was a long slog. In addition, the extensive mountain and loch views, which would normally be rewards for the climb, were non-existent.
Remembering that the first trig pillar and cairn do not mark the true summit, the three of us picked up our pace to a run through mist to finally reach another cairn at 3093ft.
Ticking off the first peak felt uplifting, but daunting, too. I tried hard not to think about what we still needed to do.
Ben Vorlich summit to Ben Vane
We set off downhill, retracing our route to around 2600ft, before swinging off the path west and over much rougher terrain. I was forced to trail Jamie and Gordon, who were faster on the steep mountainside of loose stones, rocks and vegetation.
I tried hard – probably too hard – to relax and go with the flow of wherever my feet landed but my constant thought was: “What if I go over on my ankles?”
Still, in what seemed like no time, we had dropped to cross Sloy Dam, at the southern end of Loch Sloy, which at least offered a short section of flatter running.
It was good to be below the clouds again, before we started up another steep ascent towards the second summit of Ben Vane.
There is another well-trodden route on this mountain, also accessed from Inveruglas, but we had chosen to take a more direct route to the 3005ft top.
Direct meant off-path terrain – and the long, rough grass and heather slowed our pace to a challenging hike.
As we headed into thick mist again – and my legs became increasingly heavy and fatigued – I told myself I could bale out after this summit if I wanted and simply descend on the path to the start.
This comforting thought gave me a much-needed injection of motivation. If this was to be my last climb of the day, why not push harder?
For the next few hundred feet, although consistently steep, I felt good and much speedier.
Again, the summit of Ben Vane would normally provide superb views, including Loch Lomond and many peaks, but we could see only around 20 metres ahead.
As this was the half-way mark – yes, of course, I’d decided I’d continue the circuit! – we stopped for a much-needed quick food break.
Ben Vane to Beinn Ime
From the summit, we headed west downhill towards Lag Uaine, being careful to avoid the many crags.
In the mist, we needed to stop a number of times to check the map to be sure we were on a safe route. Each stop allowed me to catch up with Jamie and Gordon, who again showed their prowess descending quickly on the pathless terrain.
Heading south-west and then south towards the third summit, we slowed to an on-off run- walk, depending on the severity of the gradient.
Beinn Ime is the highest point of the route at 3316ft and after a descent of some 1150ft from Ben Vane, we faced an extra 300ft of climb to reach the top.
I’d summited Beinn Ime several times before, but always on the path from the south and I was surprised by how much harder it was from the north.
Beinn Ime to Beinn Narnain
We were surrounded by cloud again on Beinn Ime but thankfully there was a footpath to follow as we took the southerly descent towards Bealach a’ Mhaim.
Suddenly, we were enjoying the best downhill gradient of the day’s route and ran the entire drop of around 1200ft to the bealach.
For a spell, we enjoyed clearer views along the glens to the south-west and north-east.
The final summit climb on Beinn Narnain looked on the map to be fairly short but it was still another 1000ft uphill and we tried hard to mix bursts of running with walking.
After a brief stop in increasingly damp mist at 3041ft we turned back around to descend at a painfully slow running pace to the bealach again.
There was a tortuous section of rough ground to cross that led, finally, to a forest track and a gentler downhill.
The last few miles were completed in a painful daze and my thoughts swung from “I need to stop right now” to “I must get to the end”.
Finally, the distant views of Loch Lomond crept closer until we were retracing our steps along the A82 to the car park.
In awe of Jamie’s next challenge
While Gordon and I congratulated ourselves, Jamie seemed rather disheartened. She told us she was thinking about her Italian race, the 330km Tors des Geants, which would require 10 times the ascent of our day’s outing.
I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of her goal – the Arrochar Alps adventure had provided more than enough of a challenge for me.