Short Circuit - Adventures in Arrochar

At the Heart of Scotland services I called in for a coffee.  As I put the key back in the ignition I realised I'd forgotten the bivy bag.  I toyed with the idea of going back.  Two hours down?  No, something will have to be improvised. 

I arrived about 1pm, after a sluggish start.  I've been ill, the antibiotics haven't quite killed it.   I needed to get out, blow the bug out of my system.  I stopped in at the small corner shop in Arrochar, and bought a pack of black bin liners.  Certainly lightweight, not very durable.  Just like being 13 again.  The decision was made to leave axe and crampons in the car, it looked OK up there from down here, more plastered than dusted, but doable more or less.

I followed the line of a stream, lunch just above the forestry line.  The South ridge of Beinn Narnain was taken slowly: sweat, stop, cough, repeat.  I'm wearing soft shell bottoms, and carrying a bag full of food, insulation and a tripod, but it's spring down in the glen, not winter, and very humid.  Further up, its boggy - snow melt from the last week's return to winter cover.  At the foot of the Spearhead, a group of kids out with guides, throwing snowballs at 800metres.  What a great thing to experience so young.  The spearhead is easy scrambling, an enclosed gully, and still with a little snow cover.  Then we're on top.

Beinn Narnain is wide with many boulders, but with a place or two to pitch and fields of fresh snow forming lakes around the lichen covered stones.  Loch Long lies flat far below, hovering placidly in the haze.  There's barely a breath of wind.  Wow.  Hallo Scotland.  Despite camping at well over 3000m elsewhere in the world I've never camped on top of a munro.  This would be the ideal opportunity.  I dither.  It's so great up here, but it's only 4pm, and I've planned on Beinn Artair today also.

I meet a runner on the way down.  Smashing day, he says.  Glad to be out he says.  He's right.  Forgetting my minor frustrations I head down to the wide boggy bealach, and hang a left onto the main path.  The sun is out and the shadows lengthen, the grasses glow gold against the snow white on the crags above.  Following the fast flowing Allt a' Bhalachain, down to where the path for the Cobbler forks east.  The weather begins to move,  clouds gather.  I ponder that lightning prediction.  As I ascend again, I pass a few craggy hidaways for shelter or bathroom, under the buttresses of the north peak that give the Cobbler its nickname.  Onto the col and left, across the snow bank and onto the top.  The snow is soft after a day's sun, easy going.

A weekend warrior has jammed a porno playing card into the rocks at the cairn.  Fairly nasty stuff.  Here's a newsflash for our conquering hero - It's a Corbett, not K2.  I peek through the eye of Ayrshire and then amble gently along the ridge to find camp.  There's so much great ground here, plain to see why people love it so - adventurous fun for trolls, rocky howfs for elves and play spaces for goblins.  All of a sudden, one of Tolkein's giants reaches down and puts my tarp up for me.  Nice one, cheers.

I camped about 20 metres off the top.  There is some shelter from the wind and its not too near anything pointy if that threatened lightning does appear.  As I melt snow for soup I see a father and daughter, maybe 7 or 8, up near the summit cairn.  That card is in the trash bag now, by the way.  Make camp under an orange sunset, the umber light opaque on the hills opposite, Ben Lomond catching a little weather.  I can hear the West Highland train far below, following the line of the loch, both tiny and reassuring in the distance.  Slightly nostalgic somehow, though it shouldn't be so, but I'm surprised to see and hear it.  Quite late, about 9.15, the cloud envelopes camp, fast and cold.   I wander up to the top again, but more to keep warm than for the views.

Awake at 5am, but its still thick clag.  At 6, I peer out of the sleeping bag, the same.  At 6.30, its clear.  Camera, shoes, and out.  The morning after the night before.  When the detritus of the week has been put to sleep, and the world is clear and quiet, and we exist only in and for the present moment.  I heart wild camping.

I pack and leave by 8.15am.  I approve.  I planned to camp at the lake just off the summit of Ben Vorlich so breaking camp on the early side (for me at least) is useful.  Down the north path I find a stream, and wash up.  Happy, with clean teeth and a platy full of water.

Across the bealach again and up Beinn Ime, the highest of the Alps.  Its snowy up there, but still fine so far, sticky and just shin deep in places.  A second breakfast under cloud and sun.  Now, to follow the ridge to Beinn Chorranach and east, steep into the glen.  It gets very cold, and I stop to put on extra layers.  Sometimes I posthole thigh deep, a hard crust, soft underneath, but then the snow slips a little, moving away from me.  Now, where was my winter hardware?  That axe especially... Mmm, what to do?  I decide on facing front, sitting down.  The weight of the bag will tip me backwards if the snowpack gives under me, and I've nothing to arrest with anyway.  Kicking in a step at a time, certainly not elegant, but it works.  A few stones threaten to snag ankles but slow and steady finds me at the foot of it.  I may have thought twice about going up if I had seen it from the bottom although it probably would have been easier.

Up again, and along the ridge, then slipping eastwards to the Glen far below.  I'd read somewhere that the name Arrochar Alps was fanciful but this wide valley, full of glacial boulders tells otherwise.  With the sun out and lambs grazing I fully expect to see Heidi come running.  Fairly magic.  I stop for lunch by the burn, and remove shoes and socks to dry my feet before a small hail shower hurries me along.

Up to Ben Vane, following a burn that runs down its broad flank.  A real haul with no path, steep and unremitting.  In shoes that bend you'll walk this on your toes and the balls of your feet.  I emerge just to the left of the tarn that sits perfectly on the shoulders of the Mountain.  I sit and take it in, imperfectly, catching my breath.  How's that cough doing?  Yes, much better I think, thanks for asking.  Up to the wide blunt top of Ben Vane, for views of tops from earlier.  From here I am due to continue east across the dam, then north.  Using my small monocular to scan the way ahead, I see what I expected, that this was always the weak point of my route. The trick with a circuit in the Arrochar Alps is Ben Vorlich, finding a way to link it with the others.

Instead I decide to walk parallel with the loch, north along to Beinn Dubh and off.  Whilst I have printed maps at 1.25k in order to see the detail on the crags, it means I'll be mapless for this section.  I speak to a retired couple coming up as I go down.  She is wearing a fleece and he a sunhat - real mountain chic!  We chat as the hail starts to come down in spades.  Better get on, safe journey.

Ben Vane is really, really wonderful, and not for its summit which is barren and featureless but for what lies behind.  There is some grazing but also wild flowers and tracks of mountain hare and maybe ptarmigan.  I loiter by the lake again.  You remember the lake, right?   It would be great to camp here.  When we do this trip together, that's what we'll do.

Under more hail showers once again, I can't help but slow my pace and look around me, though I still have some distance to cover.  In the weather and my solitude the small details call out.  I stop to look at frog spawn, hail stones, the colour of lichen.  I lose myself for a while, and some time too.  It is good here, really good.

Descending via a gully too early, I stop for more photos, the north end of the dammed loch laid out before me.  The scale of nature is sometimes sort of obscene, and given our relative size our ability to interface with it is impressive.  The places where we and our machinery meet that scale are fascinating - to me at least - they feel like border outposts, frontiers.  The sense of friction in these places is not always comfortable, but is usually palpable.  That's just the way I see it, and I'm not making a value judgement - your mileage may vary.

Back in the more practical here and now, fording the inflows looks tricky - I can see lots of white water from this distance, even with the naked eye.  It may have been easier to stay on the top and come off slowly that way, but I'm now committed to the gully and the banks of the loch, down to the pylons and the strange man-made mud flats of the reservoir itself.

The first inflow is easy, I barely get wet feet.  I cross a bizarre moonscape, enjoying the weirdness.  At the second inflow,  I wander up the banks for 5 minutes or so and pull my trousers up.  Shin deep, no more.  Fill my platy, then the final climb of the day.

The back of Ben Vorlich starts to gets the better of me, and no amount of Haribo Sour Suckers will make it otherwise.  I climb for 10metres, stop for a minute, another 20metres, rest.  The incline sucks the wind from my lungs and pulls at my shoes.  Don't think I am going to make that lake, and its on the wrong side for shelter too.  That's OK - it's the mountains silly, improvise.  I stop short of the first of the tops around 750ms and find a pitch that is more about the views than the comfort of my sleeping arrangements.

I also hear a trickle, which means I can conserve fuel by not melting snow for water.  And no sooner is the tarp up than the cloud dives in, swamping the hillside in a clammy, swirling embrace.  The views return later, the cloud diving in and away, moving fast high up, and more slowly lower down, like steam trains or flocks of ghostly sheep.   

Its well below freezing, glad I threw the extra primaloft in my bag as an afterthought.  I'm warm enough but sleep badly anyway, and am slow to move in the morning.  By the time I strike camp the cloud has mostly gone from the ridge ahead, but I've had the best of the weather I think, this time.  Up onto the main top of the final Munro.  Brave Ben Vorlich the outlier has broad shoulders, and seems to catch the weather for the rest, it's so snowy and blowy up here.  My feet are icy cold, but I keep moving.  Next time, some vapour barrier protection if I do this in trainers.  The weather eases as soon as I drop off the summit.

It's steeply down south west, the path slowly finding a gully which follows a stream to the marker cairn on the roadside to the dam itself.  Then on tarmac for a while, to join the 3 glens way, a path cut though the forestry plantations for the pylons carrying out electricity from all that heavy water held back in Loch Siloch.  It empties me out into the wide river delta of Glen Loin, which as an accident of the cutting is lined by birch and broadleaf.  It is a quite lovely and gentle epitaph to this walk, a way to wind down in the warmth of the sun.  I arrive back at the car a little more than 48 hours after I started.  And the cough?  Almost gone, thanks to the elves of Arrochar.