When a friend suggested 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 25km (16 miles) plus an ascent of 2,438m (8000ft).
And while some of it, located around the head of Lochs Long, Fyne, and Goil, would be on paths, there were sections of deep heather and navigating by compass.
Despite all this, we found ourselves agreeing.
To form a circuit over the four peaks, each between 915m (3,002ft) and 1,011m (3,316ft) 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 first climb was short but steep to reach around 90m (300ft), before easing to a more undulating rise. Still, the first 2.5km (1.5 miles) included a muscle-stressing gain of 200m (650ft).
Already, doubts about my fitness were creeping in as Jamie seemed to skip easily uphill, chatting non-stop.
We all laughed as her dogs, Pirate and Hope, ran backwards and forwards, ahead and behind, covering twice, or 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 and rocky – and we hiked relentlessly uphill.
Again, Jamie appeared to dance upwards. Gordon and I stopped talking and focused on keeping up. Having started close to sea level, by about 450m (1,500ft) elevation and having climbed half the height of Ben Vorlich, my leg muscles were painful and I was breathing hard.
There is very little let up in the gradient of Ben Vorlich and with thick cloud descending it was a long slog. The mountain and loch views, normally be rewards for the climb, were non-existent.
Remembering that the first trig pillar and cairn do not mark the true summit, we picked up our pace to a run through mist to reach another cairn at 943m (3,093ft).
Ticking off the first peak felt uplifting, but daunting. I tried hard not to think about what we still needed to do.
We set off downhill, retracing our route to around 790m (2,600ft), before swinging 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 toward Ben Vane.
There is a well-trodden route on this mountain, also accessed from Inveruglas, but we had chosen to take a more direct route to the 915m (3,002ft) summit.
Off-path terrain of 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 descend on the path to the start.
This comforting thought gave me much-needed 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 20 metres (65ft) 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 food break.
From the summit, we headed west downhill towards Lag Uaine, careful to avoid the many crags.
In the mist, we needed to stop a number of times to check the map. Each stop allowed me to catch up with Jamie and Gordon. 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 1,011m (3,316ft) and after a descent of some 350m (1,150ft) from Ben Vane, we faced an extra 90m (300ft) of climb to reach the top. I’d summited Beinn Ime several times before, but from the south, so I was surprised by how much harder it was from the north.
We were surrounded by cloud again on Beinn Ime but thankfully there was a footpath to follow as we descended south towards Bealach a’ Mhaim.
Suddenly, we were enjoying the best downhill gradient of the day’s route and ran the entire drop of around 370m (1,200ft) to the bealach. For a spell, we enjoyed clearer views along the glens.
The final summit climb on Beinn Narnain looked on the map to be fairly short, but it was still another 305m (1,000ft) uphill and we tried to mix bursts of running with walking. After a brief stop in increasingly damp mist at 930m (3,041ft), we turned back around to descend at a painfully slow running pace to the bealach again.
There was a tortuous section of rough ground that led, finally, to a forest track and a gentler way downhill. The last few miles were completed in a daze and my thoughts swung from “I need to stop” to “I must get to the end”.
Finally, the distant views of Loch Lomond crept closer until we were retracing our steps to the car park.
While Gordon and I congratulated ourselves, Jamie seemed disheartened. She was thinking about her Italian race, the 330km (205 miles) 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.
Make sure you are competent with a compass and map for this kind of adventure.
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