Keri Wallace - Discovering The Glen Coe Corbetts Round
Co-founder of Girls On Hills, an Ellis Brigham partner, Keri Wallace shares her experiences planning and running a new long-distance mountain round in the Scottish Highlands during a global pandemic and following nationwide lockdown.
COVID-19 brought a government-imposed ‘lockdown’ in the UK and events on the race calendar were dropping like flies. Slowly it became apparent that there would be no trail running events in 2020. In search of some motivation, my mind started to turn to personal challenges in my local hills, to try and give some structure to otherwise endless days without work, where weekends were no longer discernible from weekdays.
I started to hatch a plan to run a ‘round’ of the Corbetts in the Glen Coe area where I live. Corbetts are defined as Scottish hills between 2500 feet (762m) and 3000 feet (914.4m), with a drop between summits of at least 500 feet (152.4m). These hills are usually far apart, typically quiet and are often overlooked by visitors to the area. I was surprised to discover that I too had only climbed 3 of the 6 despite having lived in the area for over a decade.
By the end of June, I had worked out a ‘line’ on the map, taking inspiration from SMC guidebooks, friends and Manny Gorman’s book the ‘Corbett Round’. It seemed a fitting ‘post-lockdown’ challenge as hillwalkers and wild-campers flooded the British hills. Planning an adventure away from the ‘honeypots’ helped highlight for me the important role that fell running has always played in providing me with an ‘escape’ from the crowds and the crazy world at large.
The 6 Corbetts of Glen Coe encircle the rocky and far more popular Munro summits. What they lack in height they make up for in challenge - steep and often pathless, they are easily underestimated! And so it was on the 9th July, as I left home with a Harvey Ultramap, a compass and a lot of cold pizza. The forecast was warm and dry. I set out from Signal Rock car park along the side of the A82 (which was quiet at 4:29am) and headed up Gleann Leac Na Mhuihe towards my first summit.
Keri's Strava route of the Glen Coe Corbetts
Round, until her watch battery ran out
Almost immediately I changed my plan and took an entirely different route up Meall Ligichie from the one I’d planned. The day was nothing if not exploratory! A runnable grassy summit ridge opened up before me as the sun rose golden and the grey flanks of the impressive Ballachulish Horseshoe reared up in the background. On dropping to Bealach Easan I spied a series of steep ramps and a scree-filled gully that would allow me to make my planned route through the headwall of Coire Dubh a reality.
Skipping-out the summit of Stob an Fhuarain, I traversed a boulder field to join the craggy East ridge. This lovely rugged ridgeline leads to Bealach Fhionnghail, below the steep cliffs of Creag Dubh. Taking a line southwards around the crags, I was able to ascend steep grass and scree to reach the summit ridge of Beinn Maol Chaluim. I call it ‘scrabbling’ because it was far too broken and unglamorous to be likened to the sport of scrambling. A short out-n-back in passing cloud enabled me to tick my second (only second!!) summit of the day.
The long undulating ridge of this second Corbett is seriously impressive and feels like it is luring you further and further away from Glen Coe. By the time I could see clearly into Glen Etive I was surprised to see a spectacular cloud inversion – thick white cloud filling the glen throughout its length – magical! The lower half of this ridge degenerates into grassy tussocks and bog, before finally becoming very steep bracken on the final descent along the forestry boundary, down to the Glen Etive road.
Cloud inversion in Glen Etive
Hopes for a short-hop to the River Etive were rapidly dashed by waterlogged marsh around Lochan Urr (later in the day as the cloud cleared, I was able to look back and see trails here that could perhaps have been used to speed up this section). Happily, the water level in the river was low and a crossing was relatively easy with water levels below the knee.
Trying hard to avoid the pull of the trail to Glenceitlein on the East side of the river, I cut uphill to join the SW ridge of Stob Dubh. If there had ever been a path here (thanks for nothing guidebook), it was long gone following lockdown, lost to a sea of armpit-deep bracken. Stubbornness and Haribo Tangfastics were the only reason I was able to crawl to the summit of this one – pleased to see the views towards Glen Coe opening back up before me. That was until I spotted Beinn a’Chrulaiste, which seemed 1,000,000 miles away. So far all of the route had been new to me, and each summit had its own character and impressive views, but at this point, I was pretty sure that I’d call it a day when I reached Glen Etive bottom... No more, please.
The plan from here was to descend Coire Dubh-mor rather than the traverse over Beinn Ceitlein. A sinking traverse towards the Allt a’Chaorainn connected well with a stalkers trail heading to the footbridge (now ruined) at the first river junction. On the East bank, there is a lovely little trail heading into Coire Ghiubhasan. The usual route up the fourth Corbett, Beinn Mhic Chasaig ascends the East bank of the river running down through Coire Aiteil. The path was faint and gradually disappeared before a long, gradual climb to the summit. The wonderful views over Creise and Meall a’Bhuiridh were hard to fathom initially, because I was so unfamiliar with the different perspective of these new hills, despite being in an area I had long called home.
View to the distant Beinn a’Chrulaiste from the summit of Beinn Mhic Chasaig
As I descended the NE ridge, I began to make out the car of my friend and colleague Nancy, waiting by the road. This is an enjoyable descent and the second crossing of the Etive was also straightforward. Before I could explain about the lift home, she had plied me with coke, chocolate and pork pies. Maybe I would just see how the road section goes…
For the first time I can recall, I thoroughly enjoyed running on the road. Smooth, flat and warm I was able to jog slowly, eat and still make reasonable time. After 3.5km of this it was time to cross over the West Highland Way and tackle the boggy slopes of Beinn a’Chrulaiste. Now THIS was a hill I had climbed many times, and I was feeling pretty confident. I was therefore surprised to find it seemed to have grown and now felt much bigger than normal!
It took an age to reach the trig point, which thankfully has one of the best views in Glen Coe. It was here that I realised how time was slipping by and I could see that I would miss my childrens’ bedtime. I recorded a short video to say goodnight and resigned myself to many more hours ahead – feeling a bit sad and full of mum-guilt.
On the descent towards the Devil’s Staircase it is possible to see the top of Garbh Bheinn, the final Corbett on the round. It looked a long way off and this is one of the unique challenges of this particular round I think – the geographical spread of the summits. It’s certainly no ridge-run where the tops pass like clockwork – tick, tick, tick. It is hard to stay motivated when the next Corbett is so far away.
Summit of the final Corbett in the round, Garbh Bheinn
As I ran down the West Highland Way towards Kinlochleven, my plan to descend as low as the reservoir at Allt Coire Mhorair suddenly felt like too much height loss. Another split-second decision led to an alternative route choice over the shoulder of Meall Ruigh a’ Bhricleathaid into the neighbouring wooded glen. Traversing to keep the height, I crossed the river at 350m to begin climbing my final Corbett of the day. By now I felt that I was moving pretty slowly and was looking forward to reaching the summit ridge. From here it was a refreshing change of scenery, to look down over Loch Leven and out to the Pap of Glen Coe, alone on the skyline.
The direct descent South from the col between Garbh Bheinn and Stob Coire Sgoilte is loose and very steep. Great care is needed here and it is a relief to reach the bottom. Skirting around Coire Cam, I followed the river up towards the lowest point on the Aonach Eagach ridge above. Despite the brutal climb, it a real boost to pop-out on this classic ridge late in the round and be awed by the dramatic scenery before you – the Three Sisters of Glen Coe.
Heading West along the ridge the scrambling is very easy (all the difficulties lie Eastwards along the ridge from here). A short climb over Stob Coire Leith and some excellent ridge running ensues before the route drops off suddenly down the scree slopes on the South face, just before beginning the climb to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh. By traversing westward towards the prominent river gully, you soon pick up the race route (used in ascent) of the Salomon Glen Coe Skyline. This trail brings you to the Clachaig Road end, where the route joins a beautiful trail along the River Coe, back to the Signal Rock car park (and a short stroll to the Clachaig Inn for a pint if you are so inclined!).
Keri Wallace developed this new round,
running it for the first time on the 9th July, 2020
Many ups and downs resulted in a new round comprising 59km of rough running with 5070m ascent. In all, it took me 15hrs 30 mins. I ran in a pair of inov-8 X-Talon Ultra 260 trail running shoes and was so grateful for the excellent grip and superior midsole cushioning that they provided.
Throughout the day I encountered many deer, voles and frogs but not one other person. Add-in big river crossings, tussocks, bog and loose scree, and you have a truly wild and strenuous Scottish hill running adventure. This is an authentic experience that I can strongly recommend, but it may not be to everyone’s taste!