Arrochar Alps – aka Bumbling About in the Mist

24 07 2012

This was one of the first ‘articles’ on hillwalking I ever wrote – it was written for my University Mountaineering Club’s magazine. I’ve pretty much left it ‘as is’ but have added some new information and some more recent photos…

October 2007

Early in my Munroing career, my friend Richard and I decided to take a trip to pick off the ‘easy’ Munros of the ‘Arrochar Alps’ just above Glasgow. I have very few photos of this trip and what I have are mainly of very poor quality… the reason will become clear!

The forecast was good and we set off for Arrochar on Friday evening in fine, warm and sunny weather. After stopping off for a superb meal in a Rhu pub, we arrived at our B&B late in a crisp, clear, starlit evening. As I got out of the car I could clearly see the outline of the superbly shaped ‘Cobbler’ mountain (a Corbett) – it looked fantastic! I could have just dropped the bags and set off there and then to walk it but Richard, the sane half of the pairing, persuaded me it would still be there the next day.

I woke a few times during the night and noticed it was really bright and moonlit – more or less full moon. I woke all excited in the morning (thought it was only men who did that! 😉 ) and rushed to the window… to see low cloud and drizzle… bugger! Oh well – the show must go on I suppose.

After breakfast, hoping it would clear, we set off for Beinn Narnain by following the Buttermilk Burn, climbing nearly to the Narnain Boulders and ascending the SE ridge. Shortly after the saddle we clambered up an easy, slanting gully up the first outcrops and into the mist for the day.

Mist or no mist, this was an attractive and ingenious route which worked its way around outcrops, first on one side and then the other, until it reached another easy gully passing beneath the Spearhead Buttress. It was just a shame that there was no light at all for photography and the mist was too thick even to see interesting buttress shapes (well I could, but the camera couldn’t) – on a clear day, the view must be absolutely stunning! Very shortly after the gully, we reached the summit where a few hardy souls were freezing their arses off sat in the shelter smoking and drinking (tea). We stopped for a quick warming coffee and set off down to the col north of the mountain.


Beinn Narnain from Beinn Ime

Next on the agenda was Beinn Ime, the biggest of the Arrochar Alps. This is a simple, grassy route which just needs a compass pointing due North until you reach the escarpment and then you turn left until you run out of rising ground and hit a trig point – there is then a slight dip to cross and another rise to the summit. (However, I found while looking at photos of the peak afterwards, we’d only gone to the first summit and we had to re-do the hill in 2010 – didn’t matter really though as it’s a lovely peak).

There was minimally less water on the rising slopes than there is in Loch Long so I didn’t need to look behind to check on Richard – just listen to ensure I was being followed by a squelching grey shape. By the end of our trip I was beginning to imagine he must be the famous ‘Fearlas Mor’ or Grey Man of the Cairngorms. He was having a much worse time than me though as, in addition to the mist, his glasses had their own mist – so much so that he kept having to call out “where are you?” in a slight panic (I had the map and compass). The river/path petered out about halfway up the slope but it doesn’t really matter on Beinn Ime. I was quite proud of the fact that, on the return, I led us south-east until I felt we should turn south and later hit the path square on where it re-started! No pacing or anything, just a woman’s intuition I think.

At the col again we decided to include An Goblach (The Cobbler*) in our round – we had originally been going to finish with Ben Vane but I didn’t think I’d find it in that pea-souper, even with a woman’s intuition. We were somewhat amused to be asked by a passing foreign gentleman whether the murk behind us was, in fact, Beinn Ime? He was asking as he said he’d just accidentally come over the Cobbler instead – and I thought I couldn’t navigate! I gave him my special recipe for finding the summit of Beinn Ime and we set off up the newly stone-pitched back of ‘The Cobbler’.


The Cobbler from Beinn Ime

This has to be one of the most interesting mountains in Scotland and we whiled away an hour or so exploring the summit area. Unfortunately we didn’t reach any of the famed summits as the rocks were horribly wet and slimy – I’m pretty sure I couldn’t go through ‘The Window’ to do the scramble onto the main summit anyway – we couldn’t see the drop but I could sure feel it! It felt even worse off the North Summit…

As we walked back down the Buttermilk Burn to Arrochar, the weather started to improve (as it does). We had a superb meal at The Village Inn (a real-ale pub), I had a walk around the village in the lovely, clear moonlit night before retiring for the night. ‘The Cobbler’ was back out again in all his glory.

In the morning we awoke to… well… mist and drizzle really. Are you starting to see a pattern here? we were! Ben Vane was decided to be the objective for the day and after breakfast we set off to drive around to Inveruglas for Glen Sloy.


Glen Sloy

Many people will find Glen Sloy unattractive as it has a huge hydro scheme, a substation near the mouth of the glen, and lots of pylon routes making their way from there through the mountain passes. However, I found it a very attractive glen as I am completely able to ignore human infrastructures and just saw the ruggedness of the mountains (albeit the lower slopes of course).


Ben Vane & Glen Sloy

As we walked up the glen, just enough of Ben Vane was showing to reveal its very steep ascent – it looked vertical and full of crags – not my kind of thing at all I’m afraid – and I was getting afraid!


Ben Vane Ascent

Richard was hanging back on the ascent – I think he was feeling the climb and also not relishing the thought of stomping about in the mist some more. At the foot of the very steep rise, he announced he was going back as he didn’t really see the point – he’s not an ardent ‘bagger’ like wot I is, he likes to have a view and other pleasant things – who can blame him? I decided to carry on although I was nervous as the ascent really looked awful. However, luckily it turned out to be mostly okay and the path took quite an ingenious twisting route around all the craggy bits.

Off I went on up into the mist in my customary T-shirt in the freezing wind and drizzle – causing much consternation from two concerned Scotsmen who were descending. They tactfully suggested I may need a top and I reassured them I had loads of them tied around my middle – I just don’t like to sweat I suppose and find if I go fast enough I don’t get cold anyway. Crags and buttresses loomed out of the mist but the path contoured around them, but suddenly my way appeared to be blocked. I tried a few ways up the easy-looking steps in front of me but the rocks were again very greasy. I then saw a couple of ways around and up and took the outermost one of those.

Shortly afterwards I was confronted by what I considered to be a nasty, greasy huge slab – I really don’t like wet slabs with what appear to be drops into the void at the edge. Still, I wanted my summit ‘tick’ so worked my way up the outer edge along the mud (like most others appear to have done).

The guidebooks say that the summit is very sudden – they aren’t joking! I clambered up a short rocky section and realised the thing sticking up my nose was the summit cairn! On a lovely, sunny day, this summit would be lovely – a shallow dip filled by a summit tarn and a nice raised ring of rocky ground around the edge – the perfect place to relax and eat your sandwiches. But the weather really wasn’t sitting around eating or drinking weather – there was no escape from the freezing wind – and yes, I had put all my tops, coats, gloves and hats on by then. So I turned around and headed back down, drinking my coffee as I walked and only stopping when I exited the mist near the bottom. There I met a chap who was sleeping rough under a huge overhanging crag in order to be handy for the mountains (and save money no doubt) and we chatted for a while.

Just as I neared the base of the mountain, the sun came out along with Ben Vorlich across the glen. Vorlich looked really nice and I just wanted to head straight up there but, on looking at my watch, saw that it was already 14:30. Had I been on my own I’d have gone for it, but as Richard would be waiting by my car and didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, I thought an extra 4 hours or so delay in my return may result in a mountain rescue call-out so reluctantly decided against it… Of course, that was a decision I was made to regret, especially as, when I reached Richard, he looked surprised to see me so soon as he thought I’d have continued to bag Ben Vorlich after the weather improved!

Back to the car and some ice-cream from the Loch Lomond visitor centre as by now it was really warm and sunny. We both did a spot of unofficial bouldering on a superbly dry and grippy piece of rock above the pier, much to the consternation of the tourists present, especially when I first attempted to scramble up it in my driving/evening shoes and then threw them up to Richard and climbed up in my bare feet. Well, I think it was the smell getting to them by then! Still, it would possibly have them all going in for cheese toasties in the café 😉

Another lovely evening meal, this time at the Ben Lomond in Tarbert. This is an old church which has been converted to a café and craft shop in the day (I bought loads of mountain pics), and an extremely good and atmospheric restaurant during the evenings. The theme of the evening restaurant is mediaeval and very well done. The food was superb yet again – good job we were on a walking holiday. As we walked back the mile and a bit to Arrochar we noted that, yet again, it was a lovely, clear and moonlit night…

Next morning… you’ve guessed it! drizzly with cloud down nearly to the floor yet again. Still, it was our last full day to walk so I announced we had to do Ben Vorlich, view or no view – and I’m sure it has beautiful views. We drove back round to Inveruglas and Glen Sloy.


Ben Vorlich

For some reason, Richard ended up going ahead up Glen Sloy leaving me to follow on alone – perhaps I dropped him off at the gate and then went to park the car? This resulted in one terrifying section for me on the track up the glen in that day’s conditions. I had to pass under a corridor of 110,000v power lines – around 10 pylons in total – going down the hillside and over the path to a substation just below it. Due to the steep slope, the lines are probably only 10 feet above your head and the air between my very wet body and the power lines was absolutely saturated. All I could think about was them arcing and frying me! I have a bit of a phobia about power lines anyway as I’m always afraid the pylons will drop a cable on me (it has been known and people/cows have been fried). The power line corridor was about 20 feet long and I sprinted all the way through it – not that it would have done any good if they had arced!

For the ascent of Vorlich, you just walk nearly to the hydro dam to a small cairn, turn uphill and bash straight up the steep side where there aren’t any crags – there’s only one bit like that so it’s easy to find from below. I actually like these kinds of ascents as they’re really quick – and our ascent back into the mist didn’t take long at all. Near the ridge we found a path (we knew it was there somewhere) and we followed it, taking note of any landmarks we passed as a confidence measure for the return journey, and also noting the compass heading all the way.

The path seemed to go on and on… and on… then, after a good while (I’m afraid that, being totally inept and unorthodox navigators, we use neither timing nor step counting/pacing) the path became very faint and then just stopped. Hmmm… we cast about and found that people seemed to have turned 90 degrees straight uphill so we decided the summit was probably nearby. However, we didn’t feel at all confident about re-finding the path, or getting off the mountain without a path, although it isn’t a particularly dangerous mountain and it would have been perfectly okay to make a very long descent to the east and back by the hydro road. But we really wanted to go back the way we’d come – again, a confidence thing I think.

We built a very miniature cairn to mark the end of the track but on stepping away a few feet into the mist we knew we’d have no chance of finding it again. So, I decided the best way was for us to go up, one at a time, and look for the cairn, and then shout our way back down (sorry to anyone else on the mountain at the time – although I’m sure we were alone up there). The summit cairn wasn’t far away and this worked a treat and amused us at the time.

Back down the mountain to clearing weather and another great tea at the Ben Lomond and another lovely moonlit stroll back. The only worrying part was when, as we walked along the dark pavement between the two villages, suddenly loads of yobbo-looking lads melted out of the woodland towards us as we approached. Despite being very drunk though (them, not us), they didn’t cause us any problems. We arrived back at the B&B for our final night, knowing full well what we would see in the morning when we were about to head for home. Yup – lots of lovely bright sunshine and the Alps out in all their glory!

*The Cobbler has three names: Ben Arthur, An Gobhlach (which means ‘forked’ and refers to the shape of its skyline) and The Cobbler. I’ve always held that the English name of The Cobbler has nothing whatsoever to do with the three summit peaks looking like a cobbler bending over his last (a commonly held belief) but merely that the map-makers, when informed the peak was called ‘An Gobhlach’, thought it sounded like ‘Cobbler’. It seems, after a Google search, I’m in very distinguished company with my view as none less than Humble states:

“Hugh [MacDonald] talks of The Cobbler, and of the resemblance of the hill to a shoemaker at work. I have yet to see that resemblance, and prefer
the explanation that Cobbler was an Englishman’s attempt to
pronounce Gobhlach, the proper Gaelic name of the hill.”

http://www.arrocharheritage.com/BenHumbleMBE.htm

Anyway, decide for yourself – does it look like a cobbler bending over his last?

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8 responses

28 07 2012
Paul Shorrock

” …. does it look like a cobbler bending over his last? …”

Nope 😉

I go with your theory about English map makers. I’m willing to bet that the locals would have taken the mickey with the surveyors from the early OS, and I’m sure there will be a mountain somewhere in the Highlands with a gaelic name that translates as “It’s a mountain, stupid!” 😀

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28 07 2012
mountaincoward

Ha ha – yeah, probably they have. I remember asking a local guy the name of Ben Choinnich on South Uist and he just told me ‘Ben Kenneth’ – I was wanting to hear the real pronunciation so was a bit disappointed. But I think they don’t expect us to be able to handle any Gaelic pronunciation.

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29 07 2012
Paul Shorrock

Cameron NcNeish reckons that Beinn a’ Chrulaiste near Glencoe is pronounced ‘Ben Cruelty’, but I’m pretty sure he’s taking the mickey 😉

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29 07 2012
mountaincoward

I personally find McNeish’s pronunciation guides in his writing quite a bit off the mark – but then I’m no expert on Gaelic pronunciation!

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26 07 2012
bob

My own back yard Carol. There are a couple of interesting rock climbs on the alps. One under the summit of Narnain called engine room crack that squeezes inside the mountain near spearhead arete.A heavily pregnant girl was our bold leader that day.Who says women are the weaker sex?
There is also a deep pothole cave system right beside the tourist track near the summit of the Cobbler Ive been in.Me no like though. Very damp and grotty.

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27 07 2012
mountaincoward

Actually, when me and Richard were toddling about exploring the summit area, we set off down towards where we thought (in the mist) the South Peak would be and found lots of really weird crevasses. As the rock was really greasy, we were very careful where we put our feet and did no more than to peer down into them. Wonder if that was the cave system? I must go up on a better day to have another explore…

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24 07 2012
stravaigerjohn

That brought back many happy memories.

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24 07 2012
mountaincoward

Ah – it was you following behind me in the mist then? 😉 It’s a great place isn’t it? Just wish I’d seen it!

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