The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Ben Lawers or the Clouds Lie Below Coire Nan Cat

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But every silver linin’ // Always seems to have a cloud // That comes my way

Date: 6th November 2011
Distance: 17.02km
Ascent: 1522m
Time: 6hrs 16mins
Hills: Beinn Ghlas (Munro, 1,103m), Ben Lawers (Munro, 1,214m), An Stuc (Munro, 1,118m)
Weather: Cloud inversion, cold, sunny, clear skies, very light wind
Route: Click to view on OS Map

The east coast sparkled with a heavy frost as I drove down the A90 early on Sunday morning. A thin mist filled the hollows and the sun, rising through a bank of sea fog, cast an ethereal light across the landscape. The colours were crisper and more vivid than anything you could hope to commit to film or chip. After seemingly weeks of wind and rain the utter stillness was quite breathtaking, even when travelling at 70mph.

Besides the loops in the river at Coupar Angus the cows stood stiffly, their breath coming in rising clouds of vapour. The high ground between Meikleour and Dunkeld was icy, the fields white with a thick frost, and my car thermometer quickly sank into negative degrees. I took it easy on the slippery roads and then as I dropped down into the Tay valley I descended into a thick mist. Dunkeld was an eerie ghost town, the river barely visible below the strong stone arches of the bridge.

The thick mist accompanied me on the short blast up the A9 and through Aberfeldy. At Kenmore, Loch Tay was completely shrouded and it wasn’t until I started to gain height on the road to Killin that I saw scraps of blue sky above me. Elated I turned off the main road onto the narrow single track that winds up and over the pass to Glen Lyon and suddenly after climbing out of the trees I was above the cloud and once again in glorious sunshine.

Hidden Loch Tay

Near the crest of the pass there used to be a National Trust for Scotland visitor centre. Sadly today it is a muddy pit with various heavy plant items poised over the ruins like ragged crows. All this work is supposed to result in a new car park opening in 2012. However, with the current loss of this parking area, the landrover track which runs to the start of the Tarmachan ridge track is now the favoured spot and the good weather had brought out plenty of folk. I squeezed my car in near the gate and got myself sorted in the crisp morning air. The sunshine was great and I decided to leave my winter jacket behind.

Beinn Ghlas

The views, even here at the base of the hills, were tremendous. The whole of Loch Tay was covered in a thick blanket of cloud but above me the skies were blue, flecked by white, wispy cirrus clouds. The mountains shone in the sunshine. Above me loomed the pock-marked bulk of Meall nan Tarmachan, and in the distance I had a good view of the distant coned summit of Beinn Ghlas. I followed the road back down to the car park, bog hopped the muddy expanse (it is best to stick to the very right and follow the slightly firmer ground adjacent to the fence) and soon picked up the boardwalks which form part of the Ben Lawers nature trail.

The Lawers Nature Reserve

Meall Corranaich

Climbing steadily uphill on a good track, and with the sun beating down, it was soon warm and I was down to just my base layer. The track follows the course of the burn, crossing it below a water intake and then rising up on the southern bank until you reach the end of the fenced off enclosure. I passed a couple of folk and then stopped to put back on my jacket as once out on the open hillside there was a chill wind which started to cool me down. I followed the path which branches off and climbs up to Beinn Ghlas. There are a couple of false summits but each one gave increasingly grand views back over Loch Tay, across to the neighbouring hills, and to mountains further afield which were above the cloud. In places cloud was lapping at flanks and occassionaly covering summits but here there was nothing but blue skies and endless views.

Beinn Ghlas

Meall nan Tarmachan

I passed a few more people just as I got to the summit plateau of Beinn Ghlas. People often deride this hill as a mere bump on the way to Ben Lawers, but to my mind, in these conditions it had a great character all of its own. High up at 1,100m there was a thick frost covering the shadowy northern slopes and the views now included Glen Lyon and the hills north that encircle Rannoch Moor. I spent a good while sitting in the lee of the summit breathing in all this. It seemed an age since I had had a genuinely good day on the hills (in fact it was this Sunday morning back in June…) and I was here to enjoy it.

Contemplation

Rock and ridge

Ridge to Ben Lawers

Summit of Beinn Ghlas

West from Beinn Ghlas

Away to the east a broad ridge wound its way down to the bealach below Ben Lawers. The path was excellent making for good progress and soon I was ascending the steep slopes of this southern giant. At 1,214m, Ben Lawers is amongst the highest mountains in the southern Scottish Highlands. There is a good path though which has been reinforced in places to reduce the effects of erosion on this popular and busy route. I arrived at the airy summit and found I had it all to myself. The trig point stands on an island of crumbling concrete, whilst adjacent to it is a constructed cairn. The views from the summit were magnificent. To the north west I could see Beinn a’ Ghlo, the Glas Tulaichan hills and beyond them the broad backs of the Cairngorms. Away to the northwest across the empty space of Rannoch Moor I could see the Buchaille guarding the entrance to Glen Coe. Nearer were all the hills surrounding Crianlarich and south the Loch Earn Munros were clear of the earlier cloud.

Ben Lawers bealach

Summit of Ben Lawers

Shadow and Light

I had a cuppa and some food and enjoyed looking down the precipitous slopes to Coire nan Cat. Earlier in the year I had tramped across the hills on the far side of the Coire in less than perfect conditions so it was great to see the whole round clear. There were people on all the summits as far as I could see. Tentatively I looked over at An Stuc and its north ridge to see how confident I felt about following it down into the glen containing the Allt a’ Chobhair – a possible way of turning this standard out-and-back into a more circular affair.

Clouds fill Strath Tay

An Stuc and Ben Lawers

With the weather still as good as ever I continued on, following the steep slopes that drop down to Crag an Fhithich and hence to the bealach with An Stuc where I had dropped off on the previous visit. Again there is another steep climb up though soon enough the gradient eases and then it is an easy stroll along to the summit cairn.

An Stuc from Creag an Fhithich

Lochan nan Cat

Summit of An Stuc

Surprisingly I had the summit to myself for quite a while, despite there being plenty of people on neighbouring Meall Greigh, and back on Ben Lawers. The views north to the Glen Lyon hills, Schiehallion and beyond were superb.

Lochan nan Cat from An Stuc

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I spent some more time contemplating the circular route but ultimately decided to take the more assured course of returning back the way I had come. Though a circular route is always preferable there were a couple of unknowns that didn’t merit the risk on a short winter day.

I had my lunch on An Stuc, chatted to a guy who came up to the summit and was also set to return back to Ben Lawers and eventually tore myself away from the superb vantage point. Turning west I now retraced my outward steps, gaining the opportunity to enjoy the views all over again, this time with different light as the sun sank westward and the shadows lengthened.

Glen Lyon and the Allt a' Chobhair

An Stuc

Looking across Meall a' Choire Leith

Coire nan Cat

Back on Ben Lawers it was a lot busier now as plenty of people gathered on the summit enjoying the fine day. This included a group of enthusiastic Polish people who were cheering on the final member of their party, still toiling up the track. I sat for some time in the warm sunshine, enjoying the views as the sun caught the distant haze, bathing different hills and mountains in an ever changing array of colours and shades.

Creag an Fhithich, An Stuc and Meall Garbh

Climbing Ben Lawers

Summit of Ben Lawers

North-west from Ben Lawers

Eventually I had to tear myself away and move on back towards Beinn Ghlas. Although an obvious path drops down to avoid the summit the route is on the north slopes of the mountain which had been in shade all day and were therefore heavily frosted. From a distance it looked a little slippery and so I chose to stick to the ridge and the areas where the sun had warmed the ground. This gave me chance to revisit the summit of Beinn Ghlas, taking in the views down Loch Tay to where Killin was now free of the cloud.

Mist over the Southern Highlands

Summit of Ben Lawers

Cloud amonst the trees

Beinn Ghlas

From the summit I got a good view of a paraglider catching some thermals above the western flanks of the hill, his red sail glowing in the low sun. Sadly, despite the low angle, there was still another hour or more until sunset so I decided reluctantly to press on, giving myself some time to get through the mist whilst there was still daylight.

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Ben Lawers

Skyriding

The path off Beinn Ghlas, once the steeper upper parts are negotiated, is delightful and gives a very quick descent down to the allt and the start of the nature reserve. After one final cuppa and a bite to eat here I continued on, following the good track back to the car park and then back up to the car. The light was amazing, the sky filled with every shade of indigo and violet and blue.

Ben More and Stob Binnein

Ben Lawers Nature Reserve

Meall Corranaich

As I drove back alongside the loch I dipped in and out of the cloud. Every time I rose above it the views behind me were better with the sunlight giving amazing texture to the sea of cloud. Above it all were the twin horns of Ben More and Stob Binein, dark against the setting sun. Sadly there aren’t many places to stop on this fast road and so I only got one chance to get a photo. After that the road dropped down towards Kenmore and I was once more back in thick cloud. Fog lights came on as visibility was seriously reduced and it was a careful pace that eventually got me to Aberfeldy. Rejoining the A9 was one of the worst moments but thankfully everyone was being sensible and had pulled over into the outside lane to let vehicles merge into the road.

Final view of Beinn Ghlas

Sunset from the Killin road

Once through a grey and misty Dunkeld I rose back out of the cloud and thankfully had much improved visibility for the drive back up the A90 to a fish supper, a beer and home. Good days have been rare on the hills since the late spring but I think today might just have made up for at least a few weekends worth of rain and clouds and wind!

What's all this blue stuff in the sky?

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