Ben Chonzie 931m / 3054ft and Loch Turret circuit
Walking Scotland's "most boring Munro"?
Thinking about the route for the walk - and circular hikes in general
Getting to Loch Turret
A few surprises at the start of the climb
Hiking over Carn Chois with some sightings of wildlife
The summit of Ben Chonzie and a hare-raising walk down
Walking back over the tops on the east side of Glen Turret
Struggling to find a route back down to the dam
To receive the title of "most boring Munro" is hardly a recommendation for a mountain, but that's how Ben Chonzie is sometimes referred to.
I'd been wanting to climb it since living near Perth over 20 years ago, as it was one of the local Munros, but somehow there always seemed to be other mountains to climb. Maybe that reputation was what put me (and walking colleagues) off. I thought I might get the chance when staying at Crieff Hydro in July 2006, but none of the other members of the family were in the mood for a long hike.
So a few weeks later I decided it was time to give it a try. I needed to check out my fitness as there were suggestions from a friend of a more ambitious trek to Kilimanjaro (subsequently put on hold).
It was a last minute decision after checking the forecast on Saturday evening, too late to recruit anyone else for the hike, and in any case I wanted to make an early start.
But how to make Ben Chonzie "interesting"? According to Cameron McNeish, writing about Ben Chonzie in his Munros book, his friend Jim Crumley (who writes regularly in the Dundee Courier) said that "there are no boring mountains, only boring people". Cameron McNeish himself had been up Ben Chonzie 3 times, two of them in snow, and found it ideal for cross-country skiing. But what about in early autumn?
McNeish's book, and the SMC Guide to the Munros and an earlier one to the Southern Highlands, all described routes via the eastern shore of Loch Turret or climbing up from neighbouring Glen Lednock to the west. These sounded rather tame. I was much more attracted by the possibility of a circuit of all the tops around Loch Turret, rising up to Ben Chonzie at the head of the glen. It's always satisfying, having gained some height to reach a ridge, to take in a number of tops before descending, and certainly better than an out-and-back route.
Circular hikes of this sort seem to be less easy to find in Scotland than in the English Lake District, where the Fairfield Horseshore or the ascent of Helvellyn via the two edges are regular routes. Maybe it's just that the heights and distances in Scotland are greater, and one-way ridge walks provide alternative challenges as on either side of Glenshiel, along the Aonach Eagach, or on the Mamores. However, I recalled that the circuit of Loch an Daimh is recommended as a way to climb the munros on either side - Stuchd an Lochain and Meall Buidhe. Perhaps it's just that the equivalent peaks on either side of Loch Turret are below Munro height.
The prospect of undertaking a walk that few others consider was an attraction in itself, and it would provide a good test of my fitness. It looked about 20 km - 12 miles - but without including all the twists and turns you inevitably need to cross rough and often boggy ground. Although it started at Loch Turret at 350m, with all the ups and downs there was about 1230m of climbing, equivalent to climbing one of the higher munros from sea level. And as I found out, the climbing involved on the return stretch was at least as tough as on the way up to Ben Chonzie.
Leaving Dundee at 7.45 a.m., I was surprised to be driving through thick fog most of the way to Perth, but it was becoming patchy by the time I reached Crieff. As you drive west out of Crieff on the A85, signed for Crianlarich, the road to Loch Turret turns to the right signed for the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery. After driving along a narrow road through woodland, just past the distillery, there's a fork in the road with the branch to the left signed for Loch Turret (see the photo of the Hosh Farmhouse in the story of The Hosh walk).
This road was even narrower, and climbed gradually up the side of Glen Turret, with passing places to allow vehicles to pass each other. It was one of those roads where you have to keep your concentration, with nothing between the edge of the road and the slope down into the glen, but it didn't test the nerves too much or for too long. There's a single house beside the road, a ramp to slow cars down, and then a junction with one road up to the Scottish Water office building to the right. The road to the left continues on to the dam, altogether about 3 miles from the fork at Hosh.
Unlike Loch an Daimh in Glen Lyon, there's a decent-sized car park below the dam. There were two other cars there, one with the driver sitting inside apparently in no hurry to get out for a walk - maybe he was waiting for others to arrive. I got my gear sorted out and set off at 9.15 - it was mild, calm and bright, with mist still covering most of the lowland to the south.
Two other people - presumably from the other car - were walking their dog up to the right-hand end of the dam. I realised that I had to go the same way even and then turn left along the top of the dam wall. There was a control centre buildiing in modern style, and from there the views opened up across the loch. All the mountain tops were visible, looking not too rugged but quite daunting.
At the far end of the dam metal steps led over a fence to a track running to left and right. I turned right for a short distance then turned up the heathery slope towards the first hilltop on the ridge. It was un-named on the map, but rose just above 500m. There was no proper path, just sheeptracks to follow, and of course sheep tend to walk around hillsides rather than climb to the top, so I had to brush through the dripping vegetation and began to wish I had worn waterproof boots.
But it was fine really, and my attention was soon caught by other aspects of the ground cover - the proliferation of wild flowers. The little white flowers in particular were a delight, and further up in the marshy areas were larger mauve flowers with a scattering of yellow ones all over the place! The heather was well past its best, and I was surprised to find so much colour in September.
I climbed past a low line of crags on the right, then up through a trough to the left of the rocky summit before turning right up towards the top. Then I spotted something else that was intriguing - a stone with surface markings that made it look more like gnarled ancient wood, standing like the back of a chair with lower stones on either side. It seemed vaguely man-made, like a giant's armchair looking down over the valley.
It was time to take off the 2nd shirt, then continue the short distance to the top, arriving there at 9.50. Here I had another surprise - a fine cairn surrounded by a carefully positioned ring of stones. I would look back on this later and realise it was the first of several distinctive cairns along the route.
I clattered down the gentle slope to the west, into a dip before the next climb. It was a mix of heather, marshy patches, and areas of burnt heather stalks with new growth. In the boggy bits some red berries shone out, but the blaeberries were finished. A fence led up the hill, with a bit of a path just to the right of it which appeared then disappeared, but the direction was pretty clear.
Walking alone is very different from walking with a group - there's plenty of opportunity for reflection, and for noticing things. It also meant I could indulge myself taking photos of flowers with the digital camera and not annoy anyone, then hurry along at my own pace. It also means you're only responsible to yourself for any failures of navigation, or poor choices of route! On the other hand, you miss out on the conversation of a group or walking partner, and only have one pair of eyes to spot the wildlife.
After reaching a high point, I let myself go down into the next dip, having to watch out to avoid old fence posts and bits of wire. It was the top of a ravine that became deeper as it ran down towards Loch Turret. I could have crossed the fence and kept the height around the head of the ravine, possibly saving some effort.
Over another little top, then down gently this time across a dark trench of peat, and a long climb up to another flat top with an untidy cairn looking as though it had been demolished. I was back on the fence line again, along a broad "ridge", with a great sense of openness and freedom in the comfortable weather conditions. There still wasn't much to be seen in the distance, with hilltops appearing vaguely out of the mist.
It wasn't much further now to the top of Carn Chois, rockier than the surrounding hillside, with a trig point close against the fence. This hilltop halfway along the west side of Loch Turret rises to 786m (2578 ft). On the other side, it's balanced by Auchnafree Hill and Choinneachain Hill which I would climb later, at 789m and 787m respectively. The similarity of the heights seems to suggest that this was once a wide high plateau, before the glaciers carved out the loch between them.
I'd got there by 10.35, going at a good pace overall. There was a clear view of Ben Chonzie but it still looked quite a distance away. Setting off again I was surprised to find myself going down a fairly steep slope of scree, then large angular boulders requiring a lot of care, before I could plant both feet on the flat grass below them. There was now a clear path, boggy in places, which began to climb steadily again to the next top. There were only a few sheep on the ground and small birds rising suddenly out of the vegetation - skylarks maybe? Then a brown butterfly. On the next plateau, more sheep, and a large bird soaring in the air currents over to the left. I caught it in a photo and hoped it would be clear enough for some knowledgeable colleague to identify.
Ben Chonzie was a vast whaleback ridge ahead, the summit still almost a mile away to the right, with a line of sheep across the moorland. I spotted a couple of people away ahead, then as I got closer there were two others walking up the slope from the left, silhouetted against the misty backdrop. I had reached the point where the standard route from Glen Lednock arrives at the ridge. I soon left these people behind and hammered on towards the top.
The last stretch after turning right (north-east) along the summit ridge was easy going, and enlivened by the series of four shapely cairns that had been built, well-spaced out, close to the top of the north-western side of the hill. They provided some foreground interest for the views, with Bhein Ghlas, Ben Lawers and An Stuc clearly visible in the distance. This was just about the most interesting bit of the long-distance view all day. At last I reached the summit at 11.35, with another large cairn curved round to provide a shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. On this day there was scarcely a breeze, and there was no-one else there.
The view to the south-east along Loch Turret was into the hazy sunlight, but the hills and glens to the east were clear, and that's the direction I was heading in next. First I had to find the way down, to the north-east, and started out down a path close to the fence, but then took a sheep track down to the right which provided a better view close to the impressive crags. This began to give another perspective on "boring" Ben Chonzie.
I rejoined the main track at the bottom of the slope, before climbing again up to the next low hilltop. This too was topped by a striking pile of stones, which looked even better with the loch in the distance. Looking across the rough hilltop I noticed a shape squiggling over the grassy mounds, and zooming in with my camera managed to catch a photo of a weasel or stoat, or something similar. It's hard to tell from the picture!
I resumed the descent, going down below the crags towards the low-lying land at the head of the valley. The guidebooks had referred to Ben Chonzie as having more mountain hares than any other munro, but so far I hadn't spotted any. Now I found where they were hiding, among the boulders on this sheltered slope. Several of them appeared then disappeared, as if playing a game with each other and with me.
However, I had to concentrate on finding the best route down, then across the boggy land towards the next slope up to Sron Challaid - the start of the return journey along hilltops on the east side of the valley.
This became a bit of a slog - this often seems to be the case when you're on your second climb of the day, and the grassy slope lacked much interest. However there were a few more mountain hares to be spotted on the climb, and as I paused to look back the view of Ben Chonzie continued to change. Those who simply climbed up from Glen Lednock to the highest point and returned that way would miss these views, but others walking up beside Loch Turret from the dam would look up to the impressive craggy slopes even if they didn't climb to the summit.
I reached the first top of Sron Challaid and then skirted round a little grassy ridge which took me in the direction of Auchnafree Hill. Getting there involved another short descent and crossing a boggy depression, and this one provided a bit more variety - a gravelly lower level across which the water flowed, carved out of the upper level of thick black peat hags. It made for rather a dramatic scene, once again unexpected.
From there I climbed up the slope to the next long flat top of Auchnafree Hill. The highest point was over to the right, but before getting there I spotted a piece of paper wrapped in a plastic bag with a message on it - an item of value had been found at that spot and if the owner was looking for it he or she should call 07989 740 639. It's a few months since the walk, but there's just a chance that someone may spot this on Walking Stories and the message will get through.
It went on to the summit, which had the least outstanding cairn of all those I'd seen on the route so far although at 789m it's the highest point on this side of the loch. From there, a track cut across to the left, gently downhill.through the heather. It became indistinct, or maybe I deviated away from it, and I had to decide whether to descend further to a vehicle track which I could see down the slope ahead, or climb back up to the higher ground to the left. I'd have preferred not to lose any more height, but the high ground looked rough going, so I went down to the vehicle track, joining it just before a sharp bend where it crossed a burn then turned back to the right and then climbed steadily. There was a party of walkers ahead, going over the shoulder of the hill, and I caught them up as they went through the next dip before the final steep climb.
I had a chat with them as I passed; they were an older group who had followed the track alongside the loch before turning up the hillside,
The last summit of my circuit lay ahead - several of them could hardly be called "peaks", but Choinneachain Hill is a more pronounced top. The track seemed to swing round to the right of the high point, and I thought I'd get to the top more quickly by taking a more direct route, up the steep slope straight ahead and to the left of the track. Probably I should have stuck to the track, as by the time I had clambered up over the rough ground to the top, I could see the track again not far away to the right. In fact, the top which I reached had another prominent cairn, but the highest point seemed to be a couple of hundred metres away to the side. By then I was pretty tired and couldn't really be bothered to backtrack, so I just pressed on, down a rough stony bank to rejoin the track.
You might expect that there would be a clear route from this summit back down to the dam, as it's bound to be climbed fairly frequently. However, the vehicle track is clearly used for estate management and shooting parties, so it leads off somewhere else further down the valley. After heading gradually down the broad slope for maybe a mile, I realised I'd have to turn off to the right, and there was no sign of another track. The vehicle track was swinging towards the left, so it was a matter of turning off it and heading down over the rough grass and heather, then more steeply down through bracken towards the lochside which had come into view. It wasn't easy going, with just a few sheep tracks going one way then the other and a large area of bracken to get through, but finally I reached the lochside track.
After a few final photos of the view back across the water towards Ben Chonzie I made my way back past the dam to the car. It was 3.15, about 6 hours since I had set out, and apart from the hazy remnants of the early morning mist it had stayed clear and sunny throughout the walk.
As I removed my boots then poured a cup of tea, I chatted to some other people in the car park. They had just come down the same way, and were similarly surprised at the lack of a path. Perhaps the circuit of the hills above Glen Turret would become more popular if there was a clearer route - I'd found it a bit tedious in places, and quite an effort, but pretty rewarding overall.
Winter walk - 12 February 2011
This additional Gallery of images, together with the captions, gives a reasonable impression of a second circuit of Loch Turret via Ben Chonzie in winter weather. We went in the opposite direction - up the east side of Loch Turret (rather than over the tops), climbing up the gully at the head of the valley then onto Ben Chonzie plateau, before descending via Carn Chois.
This slightly shorter route was 11.5 miles (18 km), taking from 10.00 am to 4.30 pm (6.5 hours), so we were safely down in the daylight. It certainly reminded me of the importance when walking in mist of taking good bearings as well as checking the time on the watch at recognisable points (such as the top of Carn Chois). The combination of mist and snow cover made it totally impossible to pick out any landscape features as we descended, but we knew we were heading roughly in the right direction. It was tricky though, to know when to shift direction as the broad ridge curved round.
Similarly on the ascent, it was crucial to find the right access point into the gully above Lochan Uaine. We had to go through the gap between the cliffs close to the west side of the Lochan, and those further back to the north. The gully would have been relatively easy in clear weather but the deep snow made it hard work.
Then, on the apparently gradual climb up the snowy flank to the summit, I should have had my ice-axe out for some extra grip on the ice where the snow cover was thin. I called back to the others to let them know. Crampons for this bit would have made it easy but it's always a hassle getting them out of the rucksack and fitting them, when your fingers are freezing! It was only this bit where they would have been useful. Elsewhere the snow was deeper.
So although it was basically the same walk in reverse, it was a totally different experience in the snow and cloud, via the gully, with friends.< Back to Scotland page for links to other stories
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