Loch Lomond and The Trossachs Gallop
Route: From Bridge of Orchy, a circular route up and down Beinn Dorain and then on to Ardlui, 27.51 miles
Creeping out of our hikers cabin just prior to first light, we were excited about the day ahead. We had decided to include a stretch of the West Highland Way and a Munro called Beinn Dorain in our penultimate marathon. We were looking forward to the opportunity to get up high in the morning and then socialise with fellow West Highland Way walkers in the afternoon.
A short drive later and we were in position at Bridge-of-Orchy station ready for our tramp up Coire an Dothaidh. Bothy shelter, warm kit, GPS and radioactivity meter packed, we were good to go for our morning ascent. Our Science topics of the day were to be the material science involved in outdoor gear and background radioactivity. We confidently strode up and along the track which followed the river up to its source. It was not long before we slowed for fear of sweating too much. By going too fast, we were at risk of having to endure the constant battle of multiple clothing changes and experience had taught us that it was best to avoid this. With the sun now risen, mountains and rivers started to creep out from the clouds which smothered them. We stopped to look around and marvel at the glens which stretched out below us.
We soon approached the saddle at the top of the coire and turned right to walk along the ridge line that led to the summit of Beinn Dorain. We could see the cloud base sitting a short height above us at about 700m. As we started to prepare ourselves for the wet, cooler conditions that we would soon envelop us, a pair of rare ptarmigans came in to view. We stood dead in our tracks, keen to stop and stare at this rare and privileged sight. Pam quietly got her camera out and hastily took a few photographs of them.
Onwards and upwards, we followed the path which led around the side of Beinn Dorain. With slippery rocks, exposed ground and serious consequences of a fall, we watched every step and took our time. Although visibility was limited at times, we were grateful for the light south westerly wind. There was the threat of 150 mph gusts later in the day so we were pleased to be planning our descent well before then. Just prior to the summit we stopped to take another radioactivity reading. This was fairly high relative to the other readings that we took during the day and was comparable to some that we got at Dartmoor, which lay on an enormous granite batholith. We concluded that this reflected the nature of the schist rock lying underneath our feet. Mudstone that had been subjected to immense temperatures and pressures thousands of years earlier. This had caused the original minerals within it to recrystallize into new minerals forming harder schist rock that in turn emitted background radioactivity at more regular intervals. The process by which solid rock changes its structure in this way is called ‘metamorphism’.
We did not stop at the summit for long, as although our upper bodies were warm and dry thanks to the Craghoppers Goretex jackets, my feet were starting to go numb from the cold and Pam’s fingers were doing the same. We waited for only a minute or two to check whether or not the cloud that swirled around us would lift to grant us a summit view. We could see the sun trying hard to break through but it was not going to be enough to warm our extremities. We nodded at one another, our signal to turn and commence the descent. Once the exposed section was over, we skipped down the last couple of miles to the van. We felt immense gratification as we passed multiple walkers on the way up; all before 10:30am!
With the glen bottom now in sight, we discussed what kit we could swap in preparation for the West Highland Way section. Warm clothes were still going to be required as we would have a long wait for the train at Ardlui at the end of the day. On the other hand, water could be reduced as there would be stops available on route. Finally, at the van, we both started to shiver as we felt the cooling effects of evaporation. Our bodies were still sweating from exercise but as we were stationary we were no longer generating heat at the same rate. This left us losing more heat than we were generating and we were getting cold as a result. A quick top layer change and bag faff, followed by plenty of refuelling and we were ready to run!
Over to Pam……..
So with seven miles and around 80% of the ascent under our belts, we set off with a real spring in our steps. The journey from then on was along the beautiful West Highland Way; something new to both of us, though Claire was very familiar with the area having supported her dad and partner when they walked this popular path a few years ago. The full distance of this way is 96 miles, traditionally walked from the South to the North. However, we only needed to do another 19 miles and due to logistics, were going to run it against the usual flow of walkers. The big bonus of running it this way around was besides a few ‘lumps’ to climb up, the overall route was downhill to Loch Lomond and the sea; some relief for our tired legs after the Northumberland effort the other day.
September is supposedly a popular month to walk this route since weather is usually more stable and the infamous midges are far less prominent. This was clear to see as we passed several couples and groups, most with heavy packs and sturdy boots, along the Old Military Road out of the Bridge of Orchy. One such group were fellow residents at the campsite (Pine Trees Leisure Park) that we had stayed at the night before. No doubt they were slightly confused to see us running the opposite way and at a later hour than our early departure that morning would have suggested. Enjoying the fast, bouncy trails far too much to stop to explain, we simply smiled and called out our hellos in response to their surprised looks as we sped by.
Although a low level route, the views up to the mountain tops and along the glens were still outstanding. With the cloud level rising as we headed towards late morning, we were now able to see the top of the Munro that we had walked up earlier. It was difficult to reign in our speeds as the open, level terrain called out to spin our legs, so it took a fair amount of self-control not to over push our efforts. We still had a reasonable distance to run, as well as one more marathon in the Cairngorms in two days time. What was needed was a coffee stop in Tyndrum. After a steady climb up to meet the road and railway line (Two key features that we would cross many times throughout the rest of the day.), we then had a very pleasant downhill run into our chosen break point. The very busy Green Welly Stop in Tyndrum not only provided much needed coffees and hot pasties but also the opportunity to buy two hip flasks. To celebrate our achievements during this month (and to help numb the now familiar ache in our knees and feet!), we had decided that we wanted to carry a little whisky with us on our final marathon.
Suitably fed and watered, with new purchases crammed into our small running packs, we were on the road again. From Tyndrum the Old Military Road joined the main highway of the A82 and our path diverted off to a pretty, clearly defined path along the river. Passing through a small woodland and a disused lead mine, followed by a short climb across the heathland, we entered an area of significant historical, environmental and scientific importance. The West Highland Way takes you past the Kirkton and Auchtertyre Farms, where Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have established the Hills & Mountains Research Centre. The main purpose of this project is to look into ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through economically, environmentally and socially sustainable land management systems (http://www.sruc.ac.uk/info/120252/hill_and_mountain_research_centre). We took a long while to travel past this section since we kept getting distracted by all the interesting information signs that the SRUC had set up. We were really impressed with their holistic approach to the whole project.
It was at this campsite, whilst taking our 6th radioactivity measurement of the day that we met Lizzie and Ben Cumings. Lizzie, curious as to what were up to, came over for a chat. However, on learning that she was a wildlife biologist, we were far more interested to hear about her stories of environmental research work that she carried out across North America. Researching into the lives and behaviour of a range of animals, including rare mice and seabirds, she had worked in some amazing places such as the Everglades, San Francisco Bay and Hawaii. The latter location is where she met Ben as he flew her to safety from an incoming hurricane; but that is another story!
After this interesting conversation, we headed off to start the final ascent of the day, thankfully only a couple of hundred of metres this time, into the forest and still along good tracks. It is always pleasant to have a change in environment to keep our interest constant and we enjoyed the shelter and muted light of the trees and green, mossy carpet. It also coincided with the light rainfall forecast the day before; perfect timing and it saved us from having to dig our rain jackets out of our bags. Eventually the rain lifted and the canopy opened up to amazing views across the valley.
By now the afternoon light was also starting to soften as it approached 4 o’clock, so it was with some relief when the path started its descent towards Ardlui. Although we still had about nine miles to go, we had re-joined the Old Military Road again, providing firm and fast terrain underfoot. It was not too long before the valley opened up and levelled off as we drew closer to our end point.
A small break in the quirky and warm Drovers Inn gave us a small boost of energy for the last two miles. We had guessed that these would not be the most pleasant, having to hug the edge of the fast A82, but unfortunately a necessary evil to reach Ardlui, our end destination. Although the drivers were considerately giving us space as they passed us, we were pretty desperate to complete this final section before the daylight faded for good. So with gritted teeth and ignoring the tightness and pain in our now sore and exhausted legs, we pushed on, both of us shouting and laughing happily when we finally spotted the comforting lights of the Ardlui Hotel. With the penultimate marathon complete there was time spare to grab a tasty dinner and some light-hearted conversation with the regulars. An hour passed and it was soon time to catch the train back to the van in Bridge of Orchy. Happy times; a truly enjoyable and interesting day along a beautiful route! I’m sure that it will not be long before we will head up here again for another visit back to this gorgeous National Park.