Published 11th March 2023, 11:53

    TWO fine winter days, two fine Corbetts at the higher end of the scale, but despite the differing locations there was an unmistakeable feeling of deja vu about it all.

    First up was the 892-metre Beinn a' Chuallaich above Loch Rannoch, 48 hours later it was the turn of Beinn Chuirn (880m) near Tyndrum. 

    But it turned out these peaks were not the main attraction. The best views of many Munros are often seen from their lower neighbours, and that's certainly the case with these two hills. 

    On the circuit of Beinn a' Chuallaich it is simply impossible to ignore the towering presence of Schiehallion: it shadows you for most of the ascent, dominates the summit vista, and remains firmly front of centre on the descent.

    Beinn Chuirn is a striking sight from the old stone bridge at Dalrigh and for a good part of the walk up Glen Cononish, but it is soon usurped by the sensational appearance of Ben Lui. The the fact that Beinn Chuirn bears more than a passing resemblance to its mightier offspring from some angles only adds to the drama: one minute you have the warm-up, the next the star of the show.

    It had been more than 20 years since I had last tackled these peaks. I remembered well the ascent of Beinn a' Chuallaich, an almighty January struggle on a direct line through waist-deep snow which seemed to take forever in reaching the massive summit cairn. There wasn't much hanging about, just a quick photo for posterity and a hasty retreat.

    There was snow again on this latest visit, but just lazy flakes blowing across without landing, the slopes devoid of serious white, the sun growing in strength and creating miniature rainbows in every direction. And, of course, there was Schiehallion, complete with a healthy dusting of icing sugar, hogging centre stage.

    I took the longer way round this time, flitting across the edge of the hidden Loch na Caillich, a lonely body of water high in the bleak folds of the landscape, invisible until almost right on top of it. It was gone again in minutes, a frozen mirage, as I made my way to the top of the subsidiary peak Meall nan Eun.

    The snow came on again with a little more purpose on the final push up Beinn a' Chuallaich, and the accompanying wind upped the chill factor but it was fleeting, no match in the tug-of-war with the strengthening sunshine. Beyond the cairn, the long whaleback of Schiehallion was in high definition widescreen and it only grew in stature with every step downwards. 

    Two days later and a few degrees colder, I set off for Beinn Chuirn under a flawless blue sky from the busy car park at Dalrigh. The mountain sits on the Druim Alban, an ancient boundary which separated the old Scots kingdom of Dalriada from Pictish territory. 

    Dalrigh is the King's Field, and it was the scene of a battle in the summer of 1306 between the forces of Robert the Bruce and Clan MacDougall of Argyll. Bruce's bedraggled army had been fleeing west after defeat by the English at the Battle of Methven when they were intercepted and virtually wiped out, with Bruce narrowly evading capture.

    It had been almost 23 years to the day since my last ascent of Beinn Chuirn, and even with the aid of old pictures and notes my recall was hazy. The track up Cononish Glen remained familiar though, a well-trodden route usually on the way to bigger things.

    Despite the minus temperatures, most of the winter gear was in the rucksack, the brilliant sun providing warmth when logically there should have been none. The first sightings of Beinn Chuirn were encouraging, the deep gash holding the Eas Anie waterfall and the dark crags above Coire na Saobhaidhe presenting a bold profile.

    It wasn't long, however, before the eyes switched to the huge presence coming in from the left. Ben Lui was in the building. This graceful and magnificent mountain has been referred to as the Queen of the Southern Highlands, but I would liken it more to Medusa: once seen, it's hard to look away, and its hypnotic power just increases with every advancing twist and turn of the river.

    There's a wonderful symmetry about it in the Cononish view: two soaring ridges matching each other pace for pace to reach the twin crowning points, with the deep scoop of Central Gully between them. Under full snow cover, this is a classic winter route. Today it was wearing a patchy white bib, but it still managed to look the part.

    The pull up the dry and faded grassy slopes of Beinn Chuirn still failed to ring any bells, but most of my time was spent enjoying the views to the dominant mountain behind and I wondered if that had been the same back then, the reason why this hill hadn't seemed to have registered in my memory.

    I took a longer, more circular, way down from the summit cairn, making sure I could stay in the company of Ben Lui for as long as possible. At one point, I sat and watched a light airplane circle the mountain, a tiny speck in the grey that spectacularly highlighted the scale of this mighty peak.

    As forecast, the cloud cover started filling in from the east, but the more monochrome values merely accentuated the bold lines and increased the dramatic intensity of the scenery. 

    Ben Lui is a mountain that reigns supreme in colour or black and white.