Start and finish in Balmaha at the Tom Weir statue. Conic Hill (tourist and highest tops), Gualann, Binnean nan Gobhar (plus subsidiary tops Stob a Choin Duibh, Beinn Bhreac-trig), Beinn Uird, Ben Lomond, Cruinn a Bheinn, Cruachan (cross Arklet dam), Stob an Fhainne, Beinn a Choin, Stob nan Eighrach, (cross A82 Inverarnan), Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Ben Ime, The Cobbler, Ben Narnain, Ben Reoch, Beinn Bhreac, pt 657 the high point of Beinn Dubh/Mid Hill which is not named on OS maps but called Beinn Dubh on Harvey maps (not the hill race summit), Pt 701, Doune Hill, Beinn Eich, Cruach an t-Sidhein, Beinn a Mhanaich, Beinn Chaorach, Pt 693 and Duncryne
Approx 75 miles and 9000m ascent
22/23 April 2019 solo with food drops 38 hrs 47mins
19/20 May 2019 supported by Stanley, Saki, Ciara, Manny, Dave, Alan 34 hrs 24 mins
To roughly misquote Manny ” Why did you leave out Tullich Hill and Beinn Luibhean you fa*ny?” (By the way, to those of you not local to Glasgow and currently a bit shocked by such language it is not necessarily meant in a derogatory fashion). “Feel free to crack on” I replied, I’d shot my bolt. If those hill names make no sense now they should by the end if you’ve still got the energy to look at a map (an extra Graham and Corbett for the hill geeks amongst you which neatly fill in a couple of gaps in the respective areas). In 2005 I came up with several ideas for long hill runs the easiest of which was a round of Loch Lomond. In my mind at the time it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would manage it. Aye right!
When I came up with the idea the pinnacle of this type of excursion was the Broxap Round (done in 1988) in Glen Shiel which (for those new to such things) was 78 miles and 33000 feet of ascent in old money with just under 30 Munros in under 24 hours. At the time Jon Broxap was up there at the sharp end of races and to me the Broxap Round was an Olympic level achievement (not to take anything away from Jim Mann’s recent big round in the Cairngorms of course). Being a significantly more average hill runner I had no delusions of matching these achievements but a local big round would be satisfying and give me something to aim for.
The route is one of contrasts. Away from Conic Hill, Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps it’s rare to see other folk and perhaps unsurprisingly I’m yet to see anyone else on the Arrochar Alps at night (other than one tent on the last round). There is some very rough ground with the last section mostly on tarmac and there is everything else in between (peat hag, deep heather, bog, forestry track, West Highland Way trail and some lovely grassy running (if you can still run by that point)).
I swithered about telling the story at all. In these days of information overload and the overhyped mediocre endurance tale do we really need another one or should there be some areas where we don’t know every route? Well, yes but that particular stable door is unfortunately wide open. The usual dichotomy of human thought kicked in. I’ve enjoyed reading and been inspired by other accounts of long Scottish hill rounds and deep down I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to share this so selfishly here goes. I started writing thinking it might be relatively brief however 4 years worth of effort is hard to condense so it’s grown arms, legs and a change of clothing. If you are interested in reading on then it’s probably worth looking out a cuppa and a comfy chair before embarking on it.
I’d skip the next sentence if you wish to avoid an unwanted image. It’s late Sept 2015 and having just run the east side of the loch I’m standing on the bank of the River Falloch in a pair of Mudclaws and nothing else looking across at Ardlui realising that trying to swim across is not the best idea I’ve ever had (that said it’s absolutely nothing compared to Westie Charlie Campbell’s swimming on his Munro Round but I’m not an outdoor swimmer and hadn’t been swimming at all, that I remember, for about 10 years). The disrobing had been recent, don’t worry I hadn’t been running over the hills in the nip. Anyone looking across from the A82 side would have been wondering who the crazy man was. At that point the river is a good 50m wide. The only people I’d seen since Ben Lomond were a trio of Glaswegian lads fishing and drinking cans of Tenants with a friendly Staffie about half a mile behind me. A quick chat didn’t inspire confidence that they would be any help if something went wrong and I was therefore on my own. I’d googled about crossing the river and the main thing that came up was some poor lad drowning here a few years previously so that wasn’t helping my psyche. It was getting dark and one of the first frosts of the year was starting to fall. I’d just thrashed and stumbled my way through chest high bracken down the hillside and the outcome was all starting to feel a bit uncertain having felt OK up until that point. I’d not recceed this bit, another lesson learnt of which there were plenty to come. I plunged into the peaty dark water and was back on dry land a couple of minutes later (on the same side of the river!). It would have made an entertaining video but fortunately no one was around to document it. So ended the first proper attempt at the round. Incidentally this attempt was planned as a completely unsupported round carrying everything from the start. The gradual erosion of style over the attempts continued from here! A jog up the West Highland Way to the campsite at Beinglas was the end result and having missed the last train they kindly found a bed for me. Lovely folk. To be honest going from Balmaha to the Drovers Inn is a good trip in itself. The ridge follows Dave Hewitt’s Scottish Watershed route for much of it and I’ve done it quite a few times now!! I’ve only ever seen about 2 people away from Ben Lomond and Conic hill but plenty of the usual wildlife plus wild goats and a surprising number of foxes.
So it all started with a ridiculous idea quickly put on the back burner due to being busy at work and the feeling that there is always time for these things i.e. my body is going to keep going forever, eh? As far as I know it has not been done previously in a single trip but I’m happy to be corrected. It’s good to know your history but sometimes too much knowledge can stop you in your tracks. I’ve been there before working out a route and refining it (albeit on a much smaller scale) only to find out later that it had already been done by a lad called Billy Bland at a very impressive pace. I’d enjoyed the process immensely and if I’d known the history I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing it. In 2005 I worked out that the round is roughly similar to Ramsay’s Round in terms of distance and ascent although that was an underestimate and doesn’t take into account the roughness of some of the ground. Additionally a few more hills were added to the list in the interim. 10 years later and I’m living not far away with the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. The premise was a complete circumnavigation of Loch Lomond going over the significant hills (by the way did I mention it’s the largest area of fresh water by surface area in mainland Britain?). I decided to start and finish in Balmaha or that sort of area going anticlockwise leaving the flat road section for the end. I reckoned that with the road section at the end I’d finish it no matter how tired I was (it’s only about 15 miles after all!! What was I thinking?) If I ran it first my legs could be trashed given that they’re not used to tarmac.
So the Tom Weir statue in Balmaha seemed an appropriate start/finish point. East side of the loch then the Arrochar Alps Munros plus The Cobbler followed by the Luss hills and the road plod including a diversion up Duncryne to look at the view. The list of tops varied slightly. I started with a few less but realised there could be no shortcuts or I would just be disappointed with myself if I finally got to the end. I didn’t want to do it again after all!! Originally The Cobbler, Beinn Dubh and Beinn Eich were all left out. Looking at the view from Duncryne of the Loch, or anywhere else for that matter, I didn’t want to be wishing I’d done that other top i.e. the round is essentially a skyline although there are a few out of sight from the southern end (e.g. the hills between Ben Lomond and the North end) and a couple of visible subsidiary tops which are not the highest points of the attached hills (e.g. A Chrois and the popular Beinn Dubh top above Luss (i.e. the hill race top)). Most tops are visible from the summit of Ben Lomond for example. So the summits in order are Conic Hill (tourist and highest tops), Gualann, Binnean nan Gobhar (plus subsidiary tops Stob a Choin Duibh and Beinn Bhreac), Beinn Uird, Ben Lomond, Cruinn a Bheinn, Cruachan (cross Arklet dam), Stob an Fhainne, Beinn a Choin, Stob nan Eighrach, (cross the A82 at Inverarnan) Ben Vorlich, Ben Vane, Ben Ime, The Cobbler, Ben Narnain, Ben Reoch, Beinn Bhreac, pt 657 the high point of Beinn Dubh/Mid Hill which is not named on OS maps but called Beinn Dubh on Harvey maps, Pt 701 (added because I always do it on one of my favourite training runs in that area even though it’s a subsidiary top), Doune Hill, Beinn Eich, Cruach an t-Sidhein, Beinn a Mhanaich, Beinn Chaorach, Pt 693 and Duncryne.
The first attempt was Sept 2015 as described above. There were three attempts in 2016 the best of which got to Arrochar. I missed out The Cobbler on that occasion but decided to add it later because it’s clearly visible on the skyline from most parts of these hills. My memory of this longer attempt was that I could probably have finished it but because I had a sub 24 hour time in mind at that time decided to abandon as that was out the window by that stage. 6 attempts in 2017 again reaching Arrochar on one occasion but including The Cobbler (including the short scramble to the true summit) on the best of them. Large blisters had slowed progress and prevented a finish. The blister occasion was very frustrating because I was feeling otherwise very good and the memories of walking over the Arrochar Alps on a still, mild and almost full moonlit night were memorable. Injury early in 2018 meant I couldn’t try until later in May and only got 3 attempts in, the best of which got half way up Ben Ime before realising it just wasn’t happening so a plod back down the forestry track to Arrochar resulted. An unusual experience from that night was 3 foxes together moving towards my head torch to check me out as I was coming off Ben Ime. 2019 and I had tried once prior to the successful round. In total I therefore had 14 attempts prior to the successful one never mind numerous days recceing the route and checking out various route options. Here is a rough summary of how far I got on the attempts:
Arrochar including Cobbler 1 and without Cobbler 1
Slopes of Ben Ime 1
Ben Vorlich 1
Cruinn a Bhein 1
Ben Lomond 3
various before reaching Ben Lomond 5
After this you’ll not be surprised to read I had mixed emotions about continuing to try and also wondering if my body just wasn’t up to the task however I’d put so much effort into it that I just couldn’t give up. Additionally I had been concerned all the way along that someone else would be on a similar journey. It’s unlikely to ever be popular but there are obviously other people capable of going faster and longer than me and it was only a matter of time. I felt unable to share the idea with anyone other than my long suffering wife. I looked into my training a bit more at the end of last year and started to realise I might be training generally with too much intensity so I altered that a bit although when it came down to it the mental aspect was probably the main component for improvement. Training went OK until the start of April when I developed a few minor muscle niggles.
The niggles were still a problem on my first attempt on 17th April so I stopped at Ben Lomond but I realised ground conditions were perfect being as dry as they generally get along with no new vegetation growth. After a busy family Easter weekend with stunning weather I decided I just had to go again. A quick drive to refresh the food drops at Inverarnan, Arrochar and next to Shantron farm on Sunday, a wave goodbye to the relatives first thing Easter Monday morning and it was good for a 9am start. Tom Weir and the Loch were looking very good in the morning sun and the bank holiday crowds at Balmaha were yet to materialise. Best not to think too much about the journey ahead. Pottering out along the Highland Boundary Fault over Conic Hill to Gualann then turning north into the Highlands up the east side of the loch Conic hill was already busy but as soon as the main summit was left behind I saw no-one until hitting the tourist route on Ben Lomond which was chocablock. I was keeping to schedule. It’s rough going between Conic hill and Ben Lomond with deep heather, peat hags and few paths although there are several intermittent faint ATV tracks if you know where to look. Water is scarce in dry conditions but there is just enough in reliable locations in all but the driest times to get by with a 500ml bottle. All continued smoothly to The Drovers Inn at Inverarnan with my first Cuckoos of the year heard at Loch Arklet. I’d been eating well and refueled and restocked from my food drop. Heading west from the Drovers on the far side of the railway line there’s a forestry track not marked on OS maps which heads towards Glen Kinglas. This is followed until appropriate to branch off to Ben Vorlich. After the ease of the track it’s back to rough ground cutting through a relatively recently planted and fenced off area. I had tried going around this once previously, it’s easier going but longer with no real advantage in terms of time. I didn’t break any records ascending to the summit but was feeling OK. The SE to E wind had been steadily increasing and with the sun descending towards the cloud it was getting a bit cool.
Dropping down to the Sloy dam the sun was setting and I saw the only person I was to see on this leg, a bloke on a mountain bike. We chatted briefly. He seemed pretty sound and had done some endurance cycling. He asked where I was going. “Up there” pointing to the little streak of snow in the upper wide gully near the summit of Ben Vane well known to anyone who’s done the Arrochar Alps hill race. “What, at this time of night?”. If only you knew, mate, I thought. Trying to explain would probably sound like I was making it up so we went our separate ways. A head torch was required from about a quarter of the way up. Coming off Ben Vane the silhouettes of the surrounding hills were just visible if the light of the head torch was covered which eased navigation. I ate a bit of chocolate and felt immediately sick but wasn’t. Down by the Vane/Ime col I lay down in a faint depression out of the wind and dozed for 5-10 minutes to allow my stomach to settle. The ascent of Ben Ime was a bit of a grind but at least I was significantly over halfway in terms of ascent. The wind was worse again on the upper slopes but at least I’d be onto a path from the the summit for a while. It was about 0040 at the summit and the A83 looked surprisingly busy with returning holiday traffic. The moon was due to rise about this time but failed to make much of an impression because of cloud in the East but stars were visible overhead. It was a bit slow to the Cobbler. I avoided the short scramble to the summit because of the strong wind.
During the relatively short slog up Ben Narnain I thought back to walking this as my first Munro back in about 1990 when I was a student. My mate Rob and I were kitted out in ultra heavy gear. I was wearing old farm work boots and we were carrying an old canvas tent with heavy duty sleeping bags and a bottle of whisky for our camp. I remember feeling as if the hill would never end in the drizzle and starting up Ben Ime we soon gave up and set up camp for the night. If you’d told me then what I would have been up to almost 30 years later I think it would have been beyond my comprehension at the time on all sorts of levels, one of the main questions being why would you expend all that energy and effort into getting back to where you started, fair enough and I’m not sure I have an answer. The summit trig of Ben Narnain was a welcome sight and I dropped quickly down by the Spearhead and then the corrie descent to Succoth. Although the walking path down is fairly obvious in ascent I’ve managed to lose it in descent in the dark previously and prefer the corrie. My food stash just above Succoth was a relief and I tucked into pasta, chicken casserole (thanks to my sister in law’s cooking) and rice pudding. Not usual fare at 4am but I was needing the calories. I was a bit sleepy and my stomach wasn’t feeling great so I put my head down for 10 mins to the hooting of Tawny owls thinking it would give a brief chance for digestion to start. I must have pressed the alarm off without realising and woke about 30 minutes later.
This was the real crux. There still seemed an immense distance left and I felt tired and sleepy combined with it being a relatively easy stopping point. Additionally although the rest of the route was well known to me I’d obviously never been further than this in one go but on the other hand I had no serious aches or pains and my feet were good. I’d signed up for this after all and put in the preparation. At that moment my wife phoned. She’d woken up and realised the tracker had not shown movement for longer than expected and she was wondering if I was OK. Her encouragement combined with the lack of problems meant that it was time to get going. Walking towards Arrochar through the first houses a red deer jumped across in front of me. I cut through the village taking a shortcut through the rhododendrons by the layby on the far side then past the fire station and under the railway line to the start of the ascent of Ben Reoch. It was getting light but that didn’t lift my energy levels as much as hoped. Ben Reoch from here is not a pleasant route if I’m honest with last year’s long dried grass tangled with brambles and other vegetation to start with and combined with tired legs was very slow. Eventually I was able to lie down beside the summit cairn. Next was the trig of Beinn Bhreac which is a good viewpoint with the remainder of the Luss hills looking impressive ahead. The ascent from Glen Douglas up to pt 657 should break the back of the remainder of the ascent. It’s steep and pathless and another very slow one followed. It’s now after 11am. If I keep going this slowly the timings don’t add up to getting to work tomorrow. A text from my wife. I phone her. She suggests meeting me on Ben Eich with a McDonalds!! I know but I was craving something salty. This point was a revelation because suddenly I felt good and made it from there over pt 701 and Doune hill in a respectable time given the distance already covered. I got to Ben Eich with 5 mins to spare. Big Mac and fries have never tasted so good although annoyingly they’ve gone all healthy and stopped adding salt to the fries (I managed to stop myself mentioning this!). Time to get going again after about 10 minutes and we parted company. Tempting as it was to head to the car with her there was only about 1200m of ascent left so onwards it was feeling slightly sick. With the end of the hills in sight and the biggest ascent being 400m I was back to making reasonable time and able to jog on the flat and downhill. One of those things you hear about in ultras but I’d not previously experienced i.e. usually once the terminal pump arrives it stays. Clearly my mind was overriding my legs at least temporarily. The wind was getting strong on the tops. The descent down from pt 693 is long and rough although there is a faint trod to start with. It’s important to resist the temptation of cutting down towards Finlas Water as it’s even more rough with lots of burns cutting deeply into the hillside. I got to the food drop near the road just after 6.30pm. A welcome change of shoes and socks and just the road to go. Running was difficult and a brisk walk was the main pace. I stopped for crisps and a sandwich in Balloch.
When recceing this part of the route I’d obviously been keen to stay away from the road as much as possible but realised that the other options were either very indirect or blocked in some way with fences/keep out signs. The latter affected the other indistinct high point of this area managed by Scottish Water not far from Balloch Park. It got dark again somewhere between Balloch and Gartocharn with the diversion to Duncryne a welcome break from the road. Bluebells were just starting to emerge in the woods there and it was all very peaceful. Cutting through the fields on the east side of the hill I temporarily forgot my recce details from a few years ago in the dark but got the little through route in the woods eventually. Crossing the iron bridge over the Endrick meant I was nearly there. The battery died in my Garmin just after 38 hours and I finally got to the statue at Balmaha at 38hrs 47mins. Slower than I’d hoped but done just shy of midnight. Tom had a new woolly beanie. I was briefly taken aback when he didn’t reply to my greeting (must have been more fatigued than I thought). I think the real Tom would have approved of the effort. If you’ve not read his writing it’s worth a look. He knew Scotland, particularly the hills and the Loch Lomond area, as well as anyone but is probably fading from collective memory now. I heard him speaking at the Dundee Mountain Festival once and he was well worth listening to.
Anyway what a relief. Thank goodness (or words to that effect) I don’t have to do that again I thought. The next day I was a bit jaded at work but at least not having to keep moving and eating I realised that I needed to give it another go, supported this time if possible. I’d not do it in under 24 hours but under 30 should be possible without all that faffing, sitting and sleeping plus the knowledge that I can finish it.
Supported Round 19/20 May 2019
Combined with my previous round this was to be one of my most memorable hill day/s. In the few weeks between rounds I worried alot about all aspects of getting things organised. It’s a busy time of year for races and it was difficult to arrange support. I had half a team and then Manny worked his magic and persuaded a couple of extra folk to come along so it was game on. Although I’m generally not a big worrier I went from worrying about not getting enough support to worrying that I was going to make a fool of myself and not do this very experienced team justice. Between all the support team members there was a Ramsay’s Round finisher, continuous round of the Corbetts FKT, Dragons back finisher, Bob Graham round finishers, Marathon des Sables finisher, Highland Fling good time, WHW finisher and multiple Elite MM participants, the list goes on and on so I couldn’t have asked for a better team. After a perfect week of weather Sat 18th May turned out wet with the 19th mixed but we decided to go for it on the 19th. I wasn’t going to get this group together again if we had to delay. An 8am drizzly start with Stanley, Saki and Ciara saw us in low cloud until Ben Lomond. Sadly Ciara and Saki decided to leave us before Beinn Bhreac. We reached Inverarnan dead on my 27 hour (fastest) schedule. Things had gone perfectly. Stanley headed back down the WHW to Balmaha politely shunning a lift. Nutter. Maybe I should have given him more to carry!
Saki had jogged up the WHW and she and Manny got me ready for Leg 2 with Manny supporting. Heading up Ben Vorlich I started to feel a bit rough and really wasn’t enjoying myself, nothing to to with Manny’s steady chat which kept me going. Although not feeling good we made the summit faster than I had in the past. Dropping down to Sloy dam we met up with Alan who was feeling the need for more exercise prior to his leg over the Luss hills. He gave us his tips for ascending Ben Vane which is steep and pathless. I must have been up or down that route at least a few dozen times over the years but had never noticed his line which was spot on (your secret is safe with me Alan). As we approached the Ime/Vane col Manny suddenly started shouting “Brexit, Brexit” which allowed us to zero in on Dave (it’s a long story!). Manny headed off and Dave shepherded me over Ben Ime. Head torches were donned on Ben Narnain. I kept trying to stop for rests but Dave quietly and efficiently didn’t let these last long. We decided to go over Ben Narnain first this time then over The Cobbler including the summit scramble in the wet so that we could descend by The Cobbler corrie route and Narnain Boulders. It was just before 0030 by the time we reached the car park so we’d lost a bit of time and were now just over my 30 hour (slower) schedule. Dave’s wife Mary made me a welcome cup of tea and I faffed about with my kit, trying to eat and appeared to have developed the short term memory of a goldfish. I was surrounded by comfort so the obvious thing to do was head up another hill. Although everyone seemed pretty chilled I doubt I would have been allowed to stop in any case.
Manny was back on duty again over Ben Reoch in the dark and drizzle with low cloud. Just as on my solo round the moon failed to make an impression through the cloud although an almost full moon was up there somewhere. The compasses were out between the summit and Beinn Bhreac with a faint lightening of the sky in the murk to the east just before 4am indicating dawn was coming. Taking a bearing off we could soon see Alan’s campervan light in Glen Douglas to guide us. A noisy and obviously energetic Cuckoo gave an accompaniment to our descent. They must get really bored with that call. I wasn’t looking forward to the steep Beinn Dubh climb and it was just as slow as I hadn’t hoped. Alan’s cheery chat and stories kept me going. I always thought he was a man of few words but that would appear not to be the case. I learnt a few things about reindeer, we exchanged the occasional politically incorrect opinion and he had a good supply of stories. Apparently his mate phoned him one Monday a few years ago suggesting they do a big run at the end of the week called Ramsay’s Round. Alan hadn’t heard of it before but he’d completed it in under 24 hours within the week (there’s a lesson in there relevant to the present tale don’t you think?). The clag was lifting and by the time we reached Beinn Eich the views were opening up. By the end we could see all the hills making Alan happy because he’d not been on them before. I was struggling to climb quickly or even slowly and the hoped for times were disappearing over the horizon but I couldn’t stop now when everyone had put in so much effort to help out. Unfortunately I didn’t get the late resurgence like last time.
Between the first completion and this one I had rechecked the forestry SW of Shantron Farm and found a line which I’d missed previously taking us directly to the layby by Auchentullich Farm shop (top place by the way) which cuts about a mile off the road section. We met up with Manny and my wife and after a bite to eat I headed off initially alone with the plan of meeting Saki in Balloch who’d kindly managed to take the afternoon off work. I managed to do a mixture of jogging and walking. On Duncryne there was an unexpected bag of crisps and a note (see photo) and it could only be Manny. Thanks for that. It was a nice mental boost quickly consumed by my children who had accompanied us on this last short ascent. Then it was head down and keep going. 34 hours 24 mins at the statue. Thank you to everyone who gave up their precious time to help out. Words seem a bit inadequate for expressing that .
(If anyone would like individual summit splits I can be contacted via Westies)
Gear other than standard: Spot Gen 3 tracker, Garmin Fenix 3 watch on ultratrac mode (making distance measurement inaccurate but increasing battery life).
22/23 April: Solo with food drops Inverarnan, Arrochar and by Shantron Farm. My wife carried Big Mac and fries up to Beinn Eich summit and I bought crisps/sandwich Balloch. I can’t therefore claim an unsupported round however all movement was solo and I had company for 10 minutes when at rest however the psychological boost from the meeting was significant as described in the text. Additionally buying something in a shop is also support. With hindsight I should have put the crisps and sandwich into my food drop.
19/20 May: Supported by Manny Gorman, Stanley Topalian, Dave Rogers, Alan Smith, Saki Nakamura, Ciara Downes and Davinia Arnott. I had one person with me most of the time apart from the first 2 hours when there were up to 3 and from Auchentullich to Balloch and through the village of Arrochar when I was alone. I carried a pack with waterproofs, tracker, compass, map and single water bottle. Support runners carried food, an extra warm layer, torch when not in use and sometimes an extra water bottle for me plus their own personal kit.
Repeats: If anyone feels this is worthy of repeat it will definitely go sub 24 hr. There is of course plenty of precedent for that over this sort of distance and height gain. Manny’s extra hills could also be added. After about mid June give or take a week or two depending on the year vegetation growth makes the route significantly slower and it takes most of a winter for enough die back to occur. An onsight round would be a very impressive achievement. A winter round? Oh dear I’ve gone and thought it now, I’ll try to squeeze that particular genie back in the bottle.