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The Curious Case of the Disappearing Path

Beinn a’Chroin from An Caisteal (Photo: Ken Stewart)Beinn a’Chroin from An Caisteal (Photo: Ken Stewart)
An Caisteal in winter                                                                                                                                                                                                                    An Caisteal in winter

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Path might sound like a lesser-known Sherlock Holmes story, but is actually a real-life situation on the hills just south of Crianlarich. The two-Munro circuit of An Caisteal and Beinn a’Chroin, starting from the big layby on the A82, is one of the standard outings in those parts – the kind of thing that can be ambled round in no more than six hours of good summer weather, while providing something a bit more testing in snow and ice, given that the ground between the hills is steep and rocky in places.

Like many other Central Belt-based hillwalkers, I’ve been round this loop a few times over the years (usually anticlockwise, Caisteal first), and I won’t have been the first to notice something odd about the path situation.

The north side of Beinn a’Chroin is steep and craggy, so getting on to (or off, if heading the other way) the summit needs a certain amount of thought and careful navigation. For years, almost everyone descending An Caisteal to the col would then angle half-left, aiming for a narrow break in the Beinn a’Chroin verticalities. This is steep but never anything more than stony, and allows a way to be wiggled up on to the broad, bumpy ridge without handwork ever really being needed.

All other options along this northern section of the hill are likely to be considerably harder, and the upper Falloch glen drops away steadily from the col, so any significant outflanking to the left involves extra reascent. Hence the traditional route was and remains an important breach in the crags, even more so if coming the other way, given that sneaky lines such as this can be hard to sniff out from above.

Then, a decade or so ago and for reasons that are far from obvious, people started doing something different here. Visit the Caisteal/Chroin col now and you will see a clear path which takes a slight rightward line from the col before swinging left up steep ground at the western end of the Beinn a’Chroin ridge. Just below the point where the angle starts to ease off, there is a high step up on a little rocky prow. On a wet day (and certainly on an icy one), the steepness of the slope behind you here is likely to focus the mind for a few moments until the path becomes easy again and emerges on the ridge.

There is nothing massively unusual about this, of course – path alignments do change from time to time, either by deliberate engineering or by walkers voting with their feet. Some changes make logical sense, while others are puzzling – the emergence of a path across the south-eastern flank of Ben Oss towards the Beinn Dubhchraig col being an example of this, given that it’s unclear how it offers any improvement on the traditional line along the crest.

Engineered paths tend to deteriorate underfoot but stay visible once they go out of regular use – for instance the path on the Lawers range connecting the north-east side of the Corranaich/Ghlas col with the upper end of the big glen south of Camusvrachan, and the path above the Caenlochan corrie in Glen Isla, leading to the Caderg spur. In both cases, particularly the former, the grassy zigzags remain visible from afar but aren’t great to walk on, especially for anyone anticipating an old-style stalker’s superhighway. Neither path features in modern estate logistics, nor leads anywhere useful for mainstream hillbaggers, so only the occasional curious walker is ever likely to visit.

What is notable about the Beinn a’Chroin case, however, is that within a relatively short space of time the old path has all but disappeared. This was apparent at the end of May, when along with a few friends I wandered round the Caisteal/Chroin loop and climbed the second Munro via the old route by way of a refresher, having made a complete mess of trying to find it in descent in greasy, claggy, not-much-daylight conditions the previous November. (I’d stupidly gone straight down north from the summit, whereas the easy line leaves/joins the ridge near the 938m bump to the west.)

On the crossing to the foot of the gully, and on the steeper ground above, there is now almost no sign of the old path. It was never a major thoroughfare, but as recently as the middle of the last decade it was easy to follow – whereas now there are just occasional scuffs and thin remnants, mainly on the stretch where the angle eases off above the stony part of the gully.

So why has this happened? It’s hard to be sure, but various factors appear to be in play. One is that the vegetation hereabouts seemed suited to growing back in once the rate of foot traffic dropped from several people daily to possibly no one for several weeks at a time. That’s more a how than a why, though – and a clearer reason could well concern the switch in summit location at the tail-end of the 1990s, when there was a complicated and somewhat esoteric shuffling of spot heights on Beinn a’Chroin.

The old East Top – quite a bit further away, and requiring an additional 60-odd metres of ascent – had been the main Munro summit since the list’s inception in 1891. One hundred or so years later the West Top (the one you come to first after crossing An Caisteal) gained a smidgeon of extra height on the maps, this was spotted by a couple of avid scrutineers and so the whole hill reversed polarity, as it were. The West Top became the main summit, while its eastern neighbour was consigned to the Subsidiary Tops list (and duly acquired a substantial avoiding path – which tells a story of its own in terms of bagging habits).

So has the new path evolved – and the old one faded – because the East Top is not now of interest to the Munrobagging masses? Well, not really, given that the current path up the west end of the West Top takes a less direct line to the summit than did the old one. A glance at a large-scale map suggests this to be the case, and on the late May visit, while four of us went in search of the old route, one – by no means a dawdler – opted to give the new line a look. The main party, without rushing, reached the summit in under 20 minutes from the col – at which stage the soloist was on the far western bump, from where it took him a whole three minutes to rejoin the main group and receive comments that he was slowing down in his middle age.

Although there is no particular topographic logic to the path-change, the height-change does appear to relate to what has happened. The main guidebook for such matters is that produced by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and the current edition (or at least the most recent one on my bookshelves, dated 2006) has this to say: “Cross the level col and climb the rocky north-west end of Beinn a’Chroin by a zigzag path through the crags” – in other words, the present-day path. The 1999 edition says exactly the same. But the original 1985 edition – which already looks like and reads as a historical document – has this: “Cross the level col and climb the rocky NW end of Beinn a’Chroin’s summit ridge, zig-zagging left then right to avoid crags.”

Similar, but subtly different – and I’m pretty sure that what is being described there is the old route, not the new one. And given how many people over the past 28 years have come to regard the SMC guidebook as gospel, the on-the-ground change might well have been as much a consequence of this rewriting as of the remapping that saw the West Top usurp the East Top.

(It’s worth noting that one of the main online guidebooks – that produced by Walkhighlands – likewise goes for the modern west-end path, with no mention of the older alternative.)

So what, if anything, can be learnt from this? Two things, perhaps. One is the fairly obvious fact that the majority (but thankfully not the entirety) of people who climb hills tend to follow each other around, on the same standard routes up, over and off, even when the terrain is complicated enough to suggest a wide range of options. Large numbers of walkers adhere rigidly to guidebook descriptions, whether in printed or online form, while showing little interest in such out-of-fashion concepts as following one’s nose and pursuing a sense of adventure. The rise in the use of GPS waypoints is surely only going to increase this tendency.

Second, it appears to take only a decade or so before almost all trace of a fairly popular path can vanish, once it stops being walked on a regular basis. My from-the-Lakes pal Gordon Ingall has more than once mentioned slopes in those parts where distinct paths once existed but now there is very little evidence, as walkers have, for whatever reason, opted to take a different route.

If the north side of Beinn a’Chroin is anything to go by, it seems that this reversion to ordinary-hillside-ness (I’m not going to use the dread word “rewilding”) can happen surprisingly quickly. At a time when there is considerable concern about erosion and over-use of certain hill routes, it’s rather reassuring to see how vegetation, weather and the vagaries of people’s hill habits can combine to claim back a chunk of hillside.

Dave Hewitt

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