Training: Pilgrimage

Arrochar welcomed us warmly, as always. Smiles, laughter, family. A hairpin pocket at the head of Loch Long embraced tightly on all sides by mountains. Mountains with mysterious names that tease adventure; Beinn Vorlich. Beinn Narnain. each one a story within itself. Each one a history. A challenge.

Beinn Arthur is the target. Held in reverence by Nicola and her family, my mind busied with their tales of trips up ‘The Cobbler’, it forms the focus of all my planning for the weekend’s training.

Saturday had beaten me back with a whiteout at the saddle between Narnain and Arthur. Heavy snow, dense fog and the uncertainty of mountains I haven’t really run in before. Local walkers in full winter gear bailing on attempts to top out, frowning at my sparse runner’s clothing. Microspikes weren’t cutting it. Doubt. Responsibility. An impromptu change of plans for a far safer and lower seventeen miles instead.

Slow progress on Saturday
Slow progress on Saturday

But Sunday, well. Sunday.

As I break through the treeline on tired legs I can do nothing else but smile. The only clouds in the sky are the ones forming the inversion in the valley beneath me. Ahead of me the singletrack up to the saddle between Beinn Arthur and Beinn Narnain is clear. The snow has receded enough for a relatively clear push for the top and a crystal blue sky frames the imposing massif of The Cobbler. Granite angles and impossible geometry. It beckons me forward.

Beinn Arthur, aka 'The Cobbler'
Beinn Arthur, aka ‘The Cobbler’

The harder I climb, the more my senses awaken. It is a good 2,800 feet of vertical over about four miles to the summit and every step into the sky on this pilgrimage is an invigoration. I throw off the heavy grey suffocating cloak of my working week and emerge renewed. I can feel the mountains around me. I breathe them in, revel in their stillness, feel their immovability beneath my feet. Today, having had the benefit of yesterday’s aborted climb, I am even more stripped back. A windproof top and a mobile phone is all I have with me. The purity and humility of moving through this landscape unemcumbered is almost an offering.

The sun is fierce, and I stop at a few stream crossings to drink the ice cold mountain water. Wash the sweat from my face. These physical reconnections sound slight, but they form a huge part of why I do this.

I mean, come on. Does it get any better?!
I mean, come on. Does it get any better?!

I reach the saddle, noting how much easier it has been today. I am in uncharted territory again, although the route to the top is fairly obvious, away and up to my left. This new and far steeper climb is scored through with a broad line of pure white. There hasn’t been a complete thaw, and a belt of thick snow is making progress more difficult. The top layer is frozen, and as my footfalls break through and I sink in up to my knees my shins are scraped raw.

At the other side of the belt it is back to hard, fast climbing. My legs push dutifully, my quads burn in accordance, my hands dig into earth and I haul myself upwards. Before long I reach the plateau behind the summit of The Cobbler. A quick chat with a couple of walkers. They find it funny that I have run up here, and that I am wearing next to nothing. But a mountain is a great leveller, a connection between strangers that have achieved that very same thing, and any banter between us is clearly underlined with a mutual respect. They had set out early. They are from Inchinnan.

This is a strange mountain. Rocks at improbable angles. Precipitous overhangs and delicately balanced boulders. The sense of permanence and the ancient punctuated with a fragility, a fear that if I were to lean too hard on a certain rock or step too firmly on a particular ledge, the whole thing could give way and crumble down to Arrochar in an instant.

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IMG_1174Beinn Arthur is essentially a double summit. But today we have plans for family, and time is pressing. So I make do with just the one. Once I’ve sufficiently saturated my soul with what I find at the top, I turn and head for Arrochar. The plan is to go hard, go fast. The snow belt proves to be an impediment but I resolve to slide down it on my backside. This is shortsighted, and I end up with burnt hands and thighs and slightly dented pride. Progress therefore, is slower at first than I would like. But once back down at the saddle it is full steam ahead and I am rewarded with a barrelling descent on stunning singletrack.

Descending 101
Descending 101

I move quickly, kicking up dirt and hopping from rock to rock, leaping across streams. A steadier flow of walkers is now making it’s way up the mountain, and many pass comment as I fly past. Broad smiles and goodwill. Beneath me the cloud inversion still hangs over Loch Long and takes up my entire view. It is stunning.

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I plunge down into the forest and through the cloud, losing my top in the process. It is now far too hot. All too soon the gradient shallows, the switchbacks become less fierce, and the running becomes steadier. With a tinge of regret, I hit the road at the bottom of the mountain. I am thankful for this run, for this pilgrimage that I have finally been able to make. For a chance to see this mountain so loved by my in-laws for myself and understand the stories I’ve heard. And so with a full heart and senses refreshed, I head across the car park to find loved ones and share my journey.

Onwards to the next adventure. Wherever that might be.