Arrochar Alps 2017

After missing out on Slioch due to a dodgy ankle, I was looking for another long hill run having suitably recovered from Trotternish Ridge. However, this is one of the hardest in the Scottish Long Classics Series, 15.6 miles four munros, very steep and not much of it runnable. I did it in 4:48 in 2015, surely I could get that time down a bit.

The forecast was a bit naff with a westerly breeze and showers coming over around midday. But physically this time I had no excuse and duely set off for Arrochar at 08:10 on Saturday morning. Going via the M8, Erskine Bridge and Loch Lomond, it took only 1:45, even with a bit of holiday traffic. Arrochar lies at the north end of Loch Long and the scenery is great and a pleasant change to the east coast.

At the Arrochar Community Hall there was the usual sign-on, kit check and then the mile jog to the start at the southern end of Glen Loin. We couldn’t see any tops but the rain hadn’t appeared yet and it was actually quite warm. But with the thought of massive mountains and the forecast rain, I kept my long-sleeved top on.

After a short briefing and count-through we were off at 11:03. With such a long race in prospect, the start was quite leisurely and the first 4 or so miles were along a nice trail and then tarmac leading up to the Sloy Dam.
Just before the dam, we turned right up the steep slope towards our first munro, Ben Vorlich. The valley was sheltered and I was overheating badly, so I reluctantly removed my top, losing two places in the process.

Normally I am quite strong up steep slopes, but as Rob rightly observed, only nutters enter this race and I wasn’t able to pass anybody. It was a long slog – practically from sea-level, 2600 feet up to the ridge. At this point the mist was coming lower, the breeze had picked up and it was cold enough for the top to go back on! More time lost (well, a minute). Then a left turn and a nice ridge jog up to the summit. We now couldn’t see much at all and it was drizzling. One day I’ll do this race in good visibility.

Back-track south along the ridge and then the very steep plunge back down to the dam. It was very steep, tussocky with hidden holes and rocks. A lady runner asked me what the best line was down to the dam – did I look that competent? So I helpfully said no idea but probably just straight down! Ankles still intact, we said ‘hi’ to the first marshalls and ran across the top of the dam (very spectacular) to the foot of munro number 2.

I remembered this climb well from last time – again very steep, tussocky with soggy and slimy bits. Another lady runner asked me if I had done the race before and the best way up (was it my aftershave?). And again I said ‘just straight up’. Maybe it wasn’t my aftershave after all because she obviously wasn’t going to rely on my advice and got her map out! I had actually written down 220 degrees on my map and on the way up you can generally see the crags before you get to them and skirt around.

Eventually the near-vertical slope eased off and we arrived at a even soggier plateau with lochans and bogs. Very squelchy, but we soon came to the foot of the next steep climb up to the summit of Ben Vane. I had somehow managed to keep up with the lady navigator and imparted more impartial advice at the top and suggested we head due west to avoid some deadly crags. As she had already been looking at her map, she seemed to agree. The second descent was less steep but still slippy and technical. Down at the valley bottom were two cheery marshalls dishing out jelly babies (I declined, still remembering Stuc A Chroin of yesteryear).

Navigation so far had been quite straight-forward, but visibilty was getting steadily worse and the route up Munro number 3 wasn’t obvious, so I set my compass to 226. I could just about see the odd body both behind and in front and they appeared to be on the right line. We were heading towards a gully which lead up to the summit ridge. The problems began half way up this gully when my legs started to not work very well and it was getting very cold. I relented and stopped to put my jacket on. I should have put my hat on as well, but thought that this would be ridiculous in the middle of summer. Bad decision! As a result of this further pause, at the top of the gully the runner in front of me had vanished into the mist and the rocky landscape I was confronted with was missing a sign saying ‘This way to the summit’. I wasn’t going to stop again and assumed that going ‘up’ was probably OK. Fortunately The top of Beinn Ime appeared suddenly out of the gloom and seeing the lovely red and white checkpoint kite was a huge relief.

It was freezing at the cairn and scarily deserted, but I knew I had to find that blinking compass again and I set it to 140 which should get me down to the marshalls at the Bealach a’ Mhaim. I was now worrying about hyperthermia but after much stumbling and sliding I got to the bottom and almost ran into the marshall and tripped over his tent it was so misty. This was accompanied by a sort of whoop/scream from his companion. I am not sure if this was due to my appearance or she was just glad to see another runner arriving.

The marshalls showed me a convenient gap in the fence and then dived back into their tent. They must have been even colder than me. I couldn’t see any path at all and couldn’t even make out where the terrain went upwards – so again using the compass, I set off hopefully for Beinn Narnain, the last munro. Phew, there was the path (and another whoop from somewhere below).

The climb up Narnain is the most straightforward, not too steep and a reasonable path. I seemed to get to the top quite quickly despite very sore legs. My hands were very cold by now and I took ages to stamp my number on my running vest, now somewhere underneath my flapping jacket. I could hear some eery voices back down the mountain so set off quickly down the ridge and the last descent. In the confusing gloom, I didn’t recognise the ridge or path at all and spent more time faffing around with map and compass. I was so certain that I was somehow on the wrong path that I stopped for a minute to make sure that the eery voices were following me. Mistake! One gradually overhauled me and the second I just managaged to keep up with most of the way down.

The descent was very, very difficult, verging on treacherous in places with steep drops, slippery rock slabs, bogs and mud. Hardly anywhere to run down. However with stinging legs, we at last slid on to the forest track near the valley bottom. Only another mile and a half! My legs were so shot that I couldn’t keep up with the eerily-voiced runner and he pulled away. I kicked myself later when I learned that he was an M50.

At the finish I was quite disappointed that they were no cheering crowds after such an epic run, but was quite pleased to see the timekeeper nonetheless.

Back at the hall, my hands still hadn’t thawed out and I couldn’t even untie my laces and had to pull my shoes off! However, after getting changed into dry clothes I was surprised to be feeling quite sprightly and in need of food. We had all been given a voucher for the Cafe next door and I gulped down some interesting tomato soup and a superb bacon roll.

During the reminiscing and cups of tea that followed, it transpired that Walter had somehow strayed from the route and had ended up running an extra 10K!! Maybe losing time faffing around with the compass wasn’t so bad! It just shows that you must trust the thing absolutely and not any other instinct. (I am sure you have all heard about Flight 19 being lost in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 – the flight leader for some reason thought that his compass was not working properly and mis-identified some islands. They subsequently got very lost, ran out of fuel and tragically ditched and drowned.)

And now for the Geology of the area – no I’ll spare you the details this time! (But it did look very like schist that I was skiting over.)

I am not sure how much I actually enjoyed the race, but it was certainly an experience! I will only do it again with guaranteed visibility! The bonus was to improve my time by 3 minutes and get two bottles of beer for 2nd
M50 (should have been 1st). Many thanks to the Organiser and marshalls – what a great effort!


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4 comments on Arrochar Alps 2017

  1. Gill Cairns says:

    Well done Duncan! That sounds like a seriously hard race, and well done on your PB and placing!

  2. Bill Bennet says:

    Well done Duncan, what a fabulous run in really difficult terrain, I walked these hills about 20-30 years ago, they were steep and rough then and I’m sure they’re just as rough now. Great report too.

  3. gilly says:

    Wow Duncan, that sounds like such a tough race in every aspect. Huge respect to you for completing it and getting a PB. I like your comment that Rob says only nutters enter this race – well done you nutter!

  4. Rob says:

    improving your time in those conditions is definitely worthy of a pat on the back. It was a shocking day! Well done – still don’t think I’ll ever do this one and your reports never help. LOL!
    As for Walter – he was a real numpty and his route (as seen on Strava) is laughable – he managed to get up Ben Vorlich but on the way down, instead of going west, ran off down to the east, found the shoreline of Loch Lomond and ran along it northwards for much more time than any sensible person would. In the end he ran 43 kms!!!! I am not sure he even looked at his compass.

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