‘Queen among hills, wearing her royal ermine coat of snow in winter’

Ben Lui, Argyllshire.
Ben Lui, Argyllshire.

In any list of Scotland’s most beautiful mountains Ben Lui ranks high indeed; she is for me a queen among hills. I am always happy to find an excuse to visit her, but never more so than when she is wearing her royal ermine coat of snow in winter.

Look out for this lady, a few miles north of Crianlarich-on a clear day she’ll greet you from her western stance, her great arms outstretched as if to draw you to her. From the road you stare straight into her maw, into the depths of the ‘corrie of the wind’, the famous Coire Gaothaich.

The mountain boasts two summits, each at a similar height and neither separated from the other by more than a mere few minutes stroll. When snow conditions are right you can reach these summits via the classic and relatively easy snow climb of the Central Gully; the less adventurous will find snow conditions on either of her bounding ridges challenging enough.

I’ve enjoyed the mountain’s company in varying conditions, in summer time an absolute delight; in winter she’s fought me every step of the way.

There’s a little off road car park at Dalrigh, ‘the field of the king’; (the king being none other than Robert the Bruce, who was defeated here in one of his earliest battles).

A good track squeezes under the railway through a bridge then follows the River Connonish for a good few miles. Vehicles and the boots of numerous walkers before me had compacted the snow and made for relatively fast progress.

It’s always a pleasure to stroll to the foot of Ben Lui, even if you don’t plan to ascend, the walk-in on its own will reward you with fantastic mountain views. For instance, Ben Lui, (Beinn Laoigh, to be precise, means ‘the hill of the calves’), is in your face from the moment you put a boot upon the ground.

Contrast this with the river gushing through its winter browned meadows, or the dark conifer plantations that clothe the nearer slopes, and you have an idyllic panorama. And for this latest visit it was a panorama silvered by another night of severe frost.

Collies barked at the farm of Connonish, their breath steaming the air as they ran excitedly about their enclosure. Beyond the last trees the craggy slopes of Beinn Chuirn, began to fill the view, vying, though not quite successfully, with those of Ben Lui itself.

From the heights of Ben Lui’s nothern slopes the Allt an Rund rushes down to add itself to the Connonish. When I crossed its icy flow it was to step into another world; a rougher world.

And now the snow grew deeper. The two great arm like ridges that encompass the corrie are, on the left hand side: Stob an Tigh Ard, and on the right: Stob Garbh. Following the boot prints of previous walkers I entered the corrie and began a rising traverse of the left hand ridge.

It seemed that with every few dozen feet of upwards progress the snow deepened, here and there its relative softness made for heavy going.

Among rock, black in contrast with the pristine snow, I battled up steep slopes until at last I breasted the gentler skyline ridge above. As you gain height here you need to be careful of the route, a wrong turn can easily have you up on precipitous rock, great fun in summertime when there’s plenty time to re-negotiate if need be, a tad more serious when the path is buried beneath the snow and days are shorter.

So I took my time and paid attention. The snow made for slow movement anyway, plenty of time and opportunity to study well the way ahead.

High up, avoiding unassailable outcrops on their left, I nevertheless found myself in one or two situations where the exposure tested to the full my head for heights, let alone the efficacy of my ice axe and crampons.

Not that I really wanted the excitement to end, but It seemed to take forever to finally emerge from the final steep slopes beneath the little, almost saddle like, summit ridge. After climbing in the shade of steep craggy ground, with the sun only intermittently beating on my back, the snow at the cairn, glaring now in the full rays of the sun, was blinding.

And all round me now the familiar alpine scenery that I hope will last all winter, rolled away in all directions; Scotland in the first grip of winter’s icy vice.

A roll call might take another 100 words, suffice to say that, in the west, Ben Cruachan’s mini range of hills looked more beautiful in their ermine gowns than I’d seen them in a good few years.

The snow up here was well churned by the boots of those who’d come before me. Even as I took my photos I could hear the voices of a party who had made their way up the less demanding slopes of the mountain’s Fionn Choire side. (A long dull plod but an easier option for those who’s main interest lies in simple munro bagging).

With Ben Lui’s duller flanks falling away behind me and the chasmic depths of Coire Gaothaich dropping virtually from my feet, I strolled across to the mountain’s sister cairn.

And on I wandered looking for another pair of cairns around the ridge, markers for the start of the downwards path. Of course, I found no path, only snow. But the way back down was obvious enough, less complicated on this north-east ridge than the one that brought me up.

It’s nevertheless steep though the deep snow, never hard, gave excellent purchase for my boots and, taking time on any steeper ground, I quickly dropped into the corrie. Slowly the dark tree carpet in the east drew nearer until, having covered all of the rough ground to the foot of Stob Garbh, I re-crossed the Allt Rund. Four more miles, all on track and relatively comfortable, despite the creeping tiredness, was all that was left. The views in this homeward direction are nothing like as thrilling as those the other way; no wonder that, as the light began to weaken with the drooping sun, as dark shadows crept down the hillsides and into my warm clothing, I found myself turning often for those magical backward glances at ‘the queen’ I’d paid court to earlier in the day. I swear I felt her staring at me as I made my respectful retreat, brooding now in a smouldering peace of her own.