The Kingshouse Round - A New Classic Challenge?

© John Fleetwood

Are you up for a test? Does the famous Glen Coe skyline race seem just a bit, well, short? John Fleetwood's extended circuit of the area adds plenty more ground.

Covering most of the major peaks in the Black Mount, Glen Etive, and both sides of Glen Coe, this 51-mile extravaganza includes around 27,000 feet of ascent, putting it in a similar league to well-known routes such as the Ramsay Round. John hopes other runners will be inspired to have a go, and perhaps establish the route as a bit of a thing. He's done it in 29 hours, and reckons it's a go-er for a sub-24 round. You'd clearly have to be keen. Alternatively, load up a backpack and head out for an epic long weekend at walking pace...

This article was first published on John's blog Fleetwoods Long Mountain Challenges

I may be a Sassenach living amongst England's green fields, but my spiritual home lies in the Highlands. Nowhere resonates with this spirit more than Glen Coe. The anticipation builds with the rise up to Rannoch Moor from Loch Tulla, to reveal the proud outline of the Buachaille guarding the entrance to the Coe. This is a place of mystery, intrigue and adventure, and for me it is a place of memories indelibly etched into my psyche: memories of wild storms, the mystery of ephemeral mists, sun-warmed rock and close calls. It keeps calling me back and so, on a sunny August morning, I find myself once more at the door of the Kingshouse.

Kingshouse Round map

The Kingshouse is an iconic hostelry, offering sanctuary to travellers for more than 200 years. Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William, clearly found it less than welcoming:

Never did I see such a miserable, such wretched place, – long rooms with ranges of beds, no other furniture except benches, or perhaps one or two crazy chairs, the floors far dirtier than an ordinary house could be if it were never washed. With length of time the fire was kindled and after another hour of waiting, supper came, a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might have been scraped off the bones.

The 2020 version looks spanking new thanks to a £12 million refurbishment, but the midges haven't changed over the years and on a fairly windless August morning they are attempting to chew the little flesh on my bones. I am here to attempt a repeat of a route I established 14 years ago. This was the second of three routes I devised in the area, and after much poring over maps, I concluded that this was indeed the most logical line and the one that deserved a repeat. As no-one else seemed to have done so, I determined that I would have a go and try to establish it as a known 'Round'.

Evening light in Glen Coe  © John Fleetwood
Evening light in Glen Coe
© John Fleetwood

Time is said to be the great healer, and so it must be in this case. My accounts of the previous rounds tell of a cocktail of impossibly steep slopes, fiendishly rough ground, jelly-like legs and PAIN, so why am I here again? I push this thought to the back of my mind and trot up the road in the sunshine, with the dominant wedge of the Buachaille looming ahead, frustratingly capped in cloud.

With each passing moment the hope grows, until imperceptibly night has turned to day. I rise higher and higher to be greeted by sunrise on the summit ridge, painted an exquisite pink

The stretch up the A82 is unpleasant, but mercifully short. I head over the rough moor to cross the river and pass the dilapidated doss of Jacksonville – one time home of the infamous Creag Dhu Climbing Club. Heat oozes out of the heather on the steep climb up to the waterslide where I spy early birds on the immense Rannoch Wall. Embarrassingly I overtake a couple of climbers and immediately go the wrong way and have to retreat. Mist plays amongst the buttresses that rise out of Crowberry Basin, tendrils of steam rising out of a great cauldron. Curved Ridge is as enjoyable as ever – a true scrambler's line in a rock climber's domain. I go over to Crowberry Tower for a final flourish before the scramble peters out to the rubble of the summit of Stob Dearg, northern Munro of the Buachaille Etive Mor range.

The qualities of one of Scotland's most iconic mountains are clearly well recognised, for even at this relatively early hour, a stream of people lines the path on the descent to the next top. Most of these are soon left behind, but the midges remain as constant companions for the day. I compare times with those of my previous Round. Despite not being at my best on the previous occasion, I am consistently slower which is mildly disappointing, if not surprising given the interval of 14 years and the ravages of time. Like King Canute I imagined that I could resist the tide of time, but it won't be denied and I must submit to the inevitable. In my dreams, my mind is fresh and my legs supple, but although the spirit is undimmed, the body is less willing. I must accommodate the new reality.

Crowberry Basin  © John Fleetwood
Crowberry Basin
© John Fleetwood

I shuffle onwards, apprehensive of the impending drop into the Lairig Gartain. Memories of 14 years ago may have faded, but this one sticks with me. I find a better route down than previously but the horribly steep wet grass and scree still leaves me on my backside on more than one occasion and only poles keep me upright. The pass marks the bottom of a deep V and I have had plenty of time to comprehend the imposing slope that rises above the lairig to Buachaille Etive Beag. I take a scrambling line over wet slabs but for the most part it is 500 metres of unremittingly steep, tussocky grass and scree. I emerge gratefully onto the summit where the crowds have assembled. The more amenable ridge to the second Munro affords respite from the knee-cracking slopes, but I am somewhat dismayed to discover that one of my poles has broken and is rendered useless. For the rest of the Round I must rely on one pole which is akin to employing an Alpenstock – not ideal but I'll just have to make do.

Unbelievable numbers of walkers swarm up the laid path as I descend to the road. The intervening 14 years have clearly not lessened the appeal of Glen Coe, an observation which is confirmed by the overflowing car parks and constant steam of traffic on the A82. This makes the jog down the road both unpleasant and possibly the most dangerous aspect of the whole Round. Relief is the overwhelming feeling on reaching the sanctuary of the lay-by beneath Am Bodach, where I ferret around in the undergrowth to uncover my bag of hidden goodies. Disaster! Only ripped fragments remain of the plastic bag containing my sandwiches, which presumably have made a meal for a grateful deer. I have to content myself with more sweet morsels and a welcome drink before girding my loins for the imposing climb ahead.

The Bidean range from the descent off Aonach Eagach  © John Fleetwood
The Bidean range from the descent off Aonach Eagach
© John Fleetwood

The heat is oppressive in the midday sun, making for a laboured, sweaty ascent that calls for a change into my 'short' shorts. 30 metres above my stopping point I suddenly question whether I picked up my mobile phone. A search through my bag reveals nothing so I descend to scour the slopes for the phone. Nothing. I re-ascend and have a more thorough search which ultimately proves successful when I find the phone wrapped in a top. These little incidents tend to compound over time, building frustration and adding to the toil. Still, I am relieved to find the phone and make steady progress to the summit of Am Bodach where the ratio of effort to enjoyment resumes a more favourable trend.

My torch is still in emergency mode, my pole is swallowed up in the morass and it is now well past 1am...

For this is the start of the famous Aonach Eagach or 'Notched Ridge' – a twisted crest, marking the top of the northern wall of Glen Coe. In reality, the scrambling is straightforward, but the situations are spectacular, with an array of pinnacles and narrow crests. This makes the route justifiably popular, but I encounter no problems in passing the many parties en route to Aonach Eagach - Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. Remarkably, midges abound in the torpid atmosphere, so no one stops for too long. I look forward to a decent re-fuel at the road but first comes a brutal descent of 900 metres in a mile. My shoes aren't up to the job and the single pole is less effective than two. Time marches on remorselessly, elongating the jolting ache of the descent. Oh for the effortless cantering of youth!

On reaching the car park I dive into the bushes to retrieve my hidden bag, but in an ironic repeat of a previous Round, I struggle to find it. Why didn't I take a picture of the bush in question? There are so many. I must make a comical figure diving into the undergrowth beside the car park, but I have little regard for that – food and drink are my only concern. Multiple forays prove fruitless and I finally have to admit defeat. Armed with just two bars I set forth in the blazing sun with several hours of effort ahead.

Dinnertime Buttress is the left-slanting rib  © John Fleetwood
Dinnertime Buttress is the left-slanting rib
© John Fleetwood

I am a trifle apprehensive to be embarking on the next leg of my journey with so little reserves and without the much awaited refuelling. Two young fell runners skip by me on their way down from Bidean. At first my request for food is met with a regretful 'no', but then one of them shouts up and offers all he has - a bag of nuts and five, yes FIVE, whole bars! As my saviours disappear, I proceed with more confidence and wash down one of the bars with cool mountain water. I am encouraged but the sun is draining what little energy I seem to have gained from the bar. My chosen line of Dinnertime Buttress (Grade-1) is all too obvious – a compelling but brutally steep rib running toward the top of Aonach Dubh. I am soon pulling on the grass, heather and rocks; dragging myself up the hillside. Some form of relief is eventually found in the form of a scramble up delightful rock that makes a welcome distraction from the effort of hauling myself up the hill in debilitating sun without the compensation of a breeze. The light softens as the harsh light of day passes to the softer tones of evening, and with that the mood softens in sympathy. The last walkers of the day descend into Coire nan Lochan and I am left to savour the mountain air as the shadows lengthen. A team of two climbers reach the Western top of Bidean as I approach the higher summit of Bidean nam Bian, which on this day is a place of peace with only the midges for company.

The wee beasties ensure that I do not delay my departure for the wilds of Bidean's Southern flanks. These are rarely visited, being much more difficult of access and without the well-trodden paths of Glen Coe. I steer well clear of the broken cliffs onto which I'd previously strayed and elected to omit Beinn Maol Chaluim which I'd included on my previous Round. There's no avoiding the next climb up to Sgor na h-Ulaidh. This is a complex hill, not without interest and the scene of a mini epic for me. As a student I'd encountered chest deep snow on the descent and missed the EUMC bus back to Edinburgh. Those were different days when self-reliance was the name of the game. I loved it.

Evening light on the south face of Bidean  © John Fleetwood
Evening light on the south face of Bidean
© John Fleetwood

Today there's no such trial and the ascent is marked by a deepening orange glow over Bidean. Ben Starav looks discouragingly distant to the south, but I shut this thought out and focus on the wall of mountain that is Beinn Fhionnlaidh. This is the culmination of the succession of brutal mountain slopes that define the first half of this round: up Curved Ridge, down to the Lairig Gartain, up Stob Dubh, up Am Bodach, down Sgor nam Fiannaidh, up Dinnertime Buttress, down Bidean, down Sgurr na Ulaidh, up Beinn Fhionnlaidh. One after another without relent: knee-jarring, tussock-grasping, scree-tumbling slopes of mind-bending proportions. But I'm in the groove now. The impending wall succumbs to steady grinding in the deepening gloom.

Darkness falls as I reach the summit ridge of Beinn Fhionnlaidh, and my errant torch immediately plays up. A bit of jiggling temporarily resolves the issue, but this proves to be a brief respite as it moves into emergency mode despite being fully charged. I stumble downwards, squelching through the bog to the forest. The track takes a turn away from where I want to go at the end, so I elect to take a chance and follow an unmarked track. This takes me within a few hundred metres of the road, but there is no clear way through the brash.

Night in Glen Etive  © John Fleetwood
Night in Glen Etive
© John Fleetwood

The short cut has become a very long cut, where a machete and a herd of elephants are all but essential. Strangely, I do not possess either, and the only recourse is to stumble straight through the undergrowth. Never have I ever encountered such tortuous terrain. Abandoned branches litter the ground forming traps at every step, whereby each move forward is accompanied by a knee-deep sinking into the tussocks beneath the branches. This is followed by an extraction of the rear foot and a plunge into the tangled mess. At times I topple over, at others, I fall backwards. My torch is still in emergency mode, my pole is swallowed up in the morass and it is now well past 1am. The whole process is how I imagine trench warfare to be – interminable, tortured and without purpose. When I emerge onto the road I am suitably shell-shocked and immediately walk in the wrong direction. I soon correct myself and at 1:50am knock on the door of Wes' van.

Sunrise on Ben Starav  © John Fleetwood
Sunrise on Ben Starav
© John Fleetwood

To his great credit, Wes is still awake and greets me with a cup of tea and prepares a meal. Time is meaningless now, so I lie back in the van and gloriously think of nothing. The van is a haven of warmth, friendship and sustenance. I am reluctant to leave but at 3:15am I drag myself out and shuffle down the road toward the impending bulk of Ben Starav. Wes has lent me a torch, which though not powerful, is at least reliable. The 'path' up the valley is a squelching morass of bog and in the dark I lose the track and end up following a deer trod through the oozing black soup. I miss the bridge but cross the boisterous stream without any alarms. The bog eventually transitions to a rough path leading steadily upwards. It may be a long way from sea level in Glen Etive to the top of Ben Starav but it is not steep. A bright moon crowns Glas Bheinn Mor as the first inkling of daylight can be seen beyond the sharp outline of hills that mark the northern end of Glen Etive. With the promise of dawn comes the hope of a new day, and with each passing moment the hope grows until imperceptibly night has turned to day. I rise higher and higher to be greeted by sunrise on the summit ridge, which is painted an exquisite pink.

I meet backpackers who have endured a windy night on the summit, for the calm of yesterday has been replaced by a strong, cold wind. This keeps me moving – down past the quartz streak of Starav's lower top, over the breezy slopes of Glas Bheinn Mhor and on to Stob Coir' an Albannaich. I have recalibrated to this slow pace – plodding contentedly onwards. I am not breaking any records, but I'm engaged in the moment. It is a morning to be – to experience without much thought or processing – to move in the flow of the day. The flow is temporarily halted by the first steep climb of the day onto the long ridge leading to Stob Ghabhar, but is quickly resumed on the whaleback ridge. I am looking forward to the end now and mentally plan the hours ahead – the second Aonach Eagach of the Round, the last wall of mountain beneath Creise - Clach Leathadand the final ridge onto Meall a' Bhuiridh. Only the final descent of the skiers' mountain breaks the flow. My feet burn with soreness and the rough summer slopes make an uncomfortable finale to the Round. Not like last time when I could slip-slide my way down spring snow to the car park. It's a familiar process of mind urging the body onwards. I feel like I'm running but when I observe my shadow I'm not – I'm proceeding at walking pace. The final indignity is when I fail to catch up with two people walking back to the hotel. But it doesn't matter. I can stop. It's over. The end. I'm done.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,

The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;

Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,

Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;

Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,

Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,

My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;

Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,

My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Robert Burns, 1789

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24 Sep, 2020

I actually did it in 29 hours the first time including 40 minutes wasted looking for my buried food. Definitely do-able in less than 24 hours.

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