The Big Routes: Glen Lyon Watershed

© John Fleetwood

At 121km and with 9600m ascent, the round of the Glen Lyon hills takes in 17 Munros, 8 Corbetts and a Graham, besides a lot of rough pathless walking far from the crowds. While John Fleetwood tackled it in a one-er of 47 hours or so, this huge skyline romp around Scotland's longest glen also has the makings of a rewarding backpacking circuit.

Glen Lyon is the longest enclosed glen in Scotland, belonging to both east and West, or perhaps to neither - a place in between the southern central and eastern Highlands, it does not boast the rocky crests of Glencoe or the fierce grandeur of the Cairngorms, yet has its own subtle charm found in the woods and greenery of the lower glen. 

They're big hills, with a lot of ascent and plenty of path-free terrain  © John Fleetwood
They're big hills, with a lot of ascent and plenty of path-free terrain
© John Fleetwood

Two groups of Munros provide a ticking feast for the avid bagger, including the justly popular Ben Lawers. Yet for the most part, this is wild untracked country of rough grass, bog and heather, where summits are hard won and little travelled. Yiannis Tridimas had established a tough round of the Corbett Hills at the western end of the glen, but my eye was drawn to the possibility of a traverse of the full watershed - a great natural line around this elongated glen, embracing 17 Munros, 8 Corbetts and a Graham. The seed was sown and, on this occasion, the wait from germination of idea to fruition was short. Within a week I had secured the support of my friend, Wes, and was on the road north to a new adventure.

The Corbetts of these parts are the real monsters, lacking the travelled ways of the Munros and sporting thick tussocky grass on jarringly steep slopes

We park at the high point of the road to Bridge of Balgie in the hope of a midge-repelling breeze, but none is to be had. A drizzly night eases into a grey dawn where the midges are felt but not seen. A 5am departure is a relief to escape the clouds of midges and the confines of the tent. Tendrils of mist play with the soft outlines of the Tarmachans. Feet soon absorb the pervasive moisture of the lush vegetation and I forlornly squelch upwards in dispiriting drizzle, somewhat fatigued by the discomfort of the night. It all feels forced, flat, cheerless. My mood reflects the greyness all around. I can only wait for things to change and hope for a lifting of the cloud and an accompanying rejuvenation of spirit. For now, there is no relent in the thick blanket of mist. Steep wet grass leads to more steep wet grass.

The Munro of Meall Ghaordaidh provides some relief, but the trackless miles to Meall nan Subh (hill of the raspberry) demand, patience and persistence. By the time I meet Wes at the hydro road I'm ready for food and company.

This has the desired effect of enthusing me a little for the hours ahead, and as the clouds part, a brightness enters my spirit. I'm psychologically prepared for the drawn-out approach to Beinn Sheasgarnaich which marks the start of more familiar country. Not that it's easy - the Corbetts of these parts are the real monsters, lacking the travelled ways of the Munros and sporting thick tussocky grass on jarringly steep slopes. My feet feel the strain of the constant twisting and turning on the tussocks. One ankle-twisting, green wall leads to another, so I'm pleased once more to meet Wes at the far western end of the Glen. 

I gorge on a tin of pears and a prepared rice and ratatouille meal as I bathe in warm evening sun. This will be my last support point until the far eastern end of Glen Lyon, so I take the time to rehydrate, eat and recover. But like on an Alpine climb, you can never really relax until you're safely back. This temporary escape from the challenge is just that - temporary - the knowledge of what lies ahead can be ignored for a brief moment, but it is always there, nagging, looming, pressing.

For the present, I am content to delight in the rich glow of early evening when all is as it should be. I pass two campers on the ascent of Beinn Achaladair, but I'm then alone, at one with the mountains. As the shadows grow, the colours deepen and an extensive panorama opens out to the west - Ben Cruachan, the Blackmount, Glen Coe, Ben Nevis, Rannoch Moor - all imbued with deep significance, memories embedded into their shadowy forms. And as the sun sinks on the horizon, the sky is painted pink above the jagged line of mountain. The daily pattern is a timeless cycle, but each is special, a thing of wonder and awe that demands attention, cries out to the soul and calls for the silent worship of the heart. The drab dawn is a distant memory, banished by the ecstasy of this place of thinness. The moment passes, but the glow dims slowly, delaying the onset of night.

Sunset over Glen Coe and the Blackmount  © John Fleetwood
Sunset over Glen Coe and the Blackmount
© John Fleetwood

I make it to the top of the steep descent to Bealach Meadhrain before bowing to the inevitable and scrabbling for my torch. Disaster! The torch fails to light. No matter - I search for my spare batteries and fumble to insert them in the torch. Up, down, all the same way, reverse it - no good. I admit defeat and with an inward sigh, start to descend the slope, lit only by my phone torch. All too soon, the slope steepens to a disconcerting angle of about 45 degrees. I can't see the gaps between the tussocks, and slabs provide a further hazard. I'm forced to abandon my poles and grope my way down, feeling for the footholds, phone in mouth. It's painstakingly slow, but I'm still moving, eating up the hours of darkness. I take stock at the pass and try the headtorch once more. The old batteries yield a pitifully faint glow, but in the uphill direction this proves to be sufficient for the stagger up the impending slope, poles planted firmly to pivot my way upwards. Night draws out. There is nothing to distract my attention from the never-ending fumbling over tussocks that constitute a continual trip hazard and make for jerky, uncertain progress.

When the dawn comes, it is a gradual affair, mist obscuring summits to the east. My feet are wet, I'm moving slowly and I'm cold. It's a cheerless dawn - a thing to be endured for the promise of better times. I just keep moving, pole after pole, one plodding step after another. The rounded summits come and go until a horrific tangle of heather, tussocks and bilberries drops precipitously to the Lairig Ghallabhaich. I emerge gratefully to the sanctuary of the dirt road, where I tuck into a second breakfast. The sun has banished the tribulations of the night, and even the steep, trackless heather cannot reverse my growing sense of content.

A second night beckons on the climax of the round – a traverse of the fine ridges of Ben Lawers. Loch Tay shimmers, fjord-like, as the slopes above turn a rich ochre and the warmth of the sun fades in a cooling breeze

There's a lot of this sort of thing in the trackless sections between hill groups  © John Fleetwood
There's a lot of this sort of thing in the trackless sections between hill groups
© John Fleetwood

I sample the profuse bilberries on the steep ascent of Beinn Dearg, drawing on the knowledge that the trackless wandering will shortly be over, replaced by the comforting paths of the Carn Mairg Munros. A glorious summers day is underway as I join the Munro baggers on Carn Mairg. Freed from the trickery of the tussocks, I make more certain progress eastwards. I can see Ben Vrackie and Beinn a' Ghlo beyond the A9, markers of my progress from west to east. I depart from the Munro bagger trail and follow the long watershed ridge that eventually leads to the foot of Glen Lyon. By the time I reach Wes at Fortingall, it is early evening and time for tea.

We are now out of the mountains, almost a stone's throw from the eastern end of Loch Tay, so it feels like an end point, which, for me, it is not. A second night beckons on the climax of the round – a traverse of the fine ridges of Ben Lawers. Armed with a functioning torch, I set forth in the balmy evening air of summer, stiffly shuffling along the road to cross the Bridge of Lyon and from there, to follow the valley road to Fearnan. It is all very reminiscent of long Alpine days, re-ascending out of the valley after a good feed, warmed by the evening sun and bitten by insects in steamy forests.

It's easier going on the grassy Carn Mairg group  © John Fleetwood
It's easier going on the grassy Carn Mairg group
© John Fleetwood

The track out of Fearnan is most unlike Alpine trails, however, degenerating into a thrash through bushes and stinging nettles. I am glad to escape the trees and begin the long ascent of Meall Greigh, basking in the evening sunlight as the shadows lengthen and the golden hour approaches. Loch Tay shimmers, fjord-like, as the slopes above turn a rich ochre and the warmth of the sun fades in a cooling breeze.

I make steady, plodding progress up to the second Munro, lifted by another magnificent sunset; but as night falls time loses meaning – minutes seem to drag by, yet hours pass in a flash. Legs wobble on the steep descents, only propped up by poles. The torch is a veritable car headlamp in comparison with the night before, revealing An Stuc as a looming tower that spirals upwards into a mysterious mist. The mist comes and goes, but largely grows until all is enveloped in its soft embrace. Time ceases to matter as long as I am moving forwards, eking out the miles in a befuddled stupor through the fog. I distract the brain from the slow death of the night by listening to 'Tales of the Norsemen' - the stories of Thor, the ice giants and the tricky Loki which seem supremely suited to the time and place.  There are moments when the mist clears to reveal a star-studded sky, but for the most part all is smothered by cloying fog. 

On and on its goes, until I'm astonished to see a lightening in the sky that promises a new dawn. At 4:15am the night is drawing to a close as I greet Wes with a knock on the van door.

Start/finish: Bridge of Lyon, Grid Ref NN 728 466

Distance: 121km

Total ascent: 9650m

Time: 2 – 5 days

Maps: OS Landranger 50, 51 (1:50,000)

Guidebooks: The Munros (SMC); The Corbetts (SMC)

Terrain: There is little rock on this round, but the terrain is not easy for the most part. The sections incorporating trade routes over the Munros are much easier underfoot with well-travelled paths, but the majority of the round comprises rough tussock grass as well as some heather and peat hags. The Western section includes a succession of steep ascents and descents. Most of the route is trackless.

Overnight options: Culdees Bunkhouse offers bunkhouse accommodation near the start (including family rooms). There is a hotel in Fortingall and camp sites near Killin and in Aberfeldy. On the walk itself, wild camping is the only possibility. Given that much of the ground is rough and boggy, sites will have to be selected carefully. If the weather is fair, high camps are feasible, but otherwise low level options might be preferable, in which case short diversions from the ridge line might be required. Possibilities include Lochan a' Chreachain on the north side of Beinn a' Chreachain, the far west end of Loch an Daimh and the eastern end of Loch Lyon.

Seasonal notes: In winter conditions the round would be very arduous given the rough terrain and strong likelihood of having to trail-blaze for most of the route. It is also an exposed route and there is little shelter from the wind.  Autumn is a fine time to view the changing colours in lower Glen Lyon, but stalking may be an issue at this time of year, so check here for up to date information.

Route variants: There are a number of bad weather options and possible additions to the route:

  • Instead of tracing the watershed from Meall Corraineach to Meall nan Tarmachan over rough and boggy ground, an easier alternative would be to take the good path to the Lawers Car Park (camping possible near here) and ascend the normal route to the Tarmachans the next day.
  • A sheltered camp site could be found on the southeast end of Loch Lyon by descending the road, in which case it might be easier to take the track along the southern shore of Loch Lyon and strike up the north ridge of Beinn Heasgarnich.
  • Instead of following the broad ridge line from the Corbett Meall Buidhe to the Munro Meall Buidhe, you could take in the Munro, Stuchd an Lochain, descending to the dam by the normal route of ascent and proceeding up the normal track to the next Munro, Meall Buidhe. This would constitute a significant addition.
  • There are numerous escape points along the route, all in the direction of Glen Lyon where shelter can be found.

Public transport: Possible, but quite involved: Train to Dunkeld. Bus from Dunkeld to Aberfeldy. Bus from Aberfeldy to Fortingall.

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"While John Fleetwood tackled it in a one-er of 47 hours or so, this huge skyline romp around Scotland's longest glen also has the makings of a rewarding backpacking circuit"

John, have you got any advice on how you deal with the lack of sleep (or is it just a case of doing it)?! I'm down to do the Summer Spine next year, so have been thinking about this a lot...

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