There are a number of Ben Mores in Scotland. You understand the logic behind its naming when you first set eyes on Crianlarich’s guardian hill; Ben More means: Big Mountain. And of all the Ben Mores this one, at 1174 metres, is the highest; and a supremely confident mountain she is amongst her retinue of equally impressive hills.
Once, when coming down from a mist enshrouded Sgiath Chuill, a grand hill across the Dochart Glen, I was mesmerised by the spectacle of Ben More congealing slowly from her own wrap of cloud; like some great Everest she seemed, such was the magnifying effect of the fog.
Summer is a splendid time for Ben More. Along with her elegant neighbour, Stob Binnein (The Anvil Peak), you can walk over fine satellite hills with names like: Stob Coire an Lochain, named for a tiny body of water that you’ll discover, as often as not, all but dry.
And then there’s rocky Meall na Dige (pronounced: Jeeka), ‘the hill of the dyke’. Homeward bound you’ll undulate over Stob Creagach, there’s optional scrambling on her small crags. Then drop off for the woods again once little Caisteal Corrach, (Castle of the sheep), is tucked below your belt. A magnificent day of big green hills and even greener corries!
But with so much snow still on the slopes such a long day, though feasible with speed, seemed like overkill to me on my most recent visit to the Crianlarich hills; Ben More and Stob Binnein would be ample.
As I looked up at Ben More from the Crianlarich road, snow draped virtually from head to toe, I thought of W Naismith, dubbed ‘the father of Scottish mountaineering’. During the latter part of the nineteenth century he’d been a leading light of The Alpine Club. It was on climbing Ben More in winter conditions that he became convinced that our Scottish Hills deserved to be treated as seriously as the Alps he’d cut his teeth on.
I’ve climbed these hills by various routes, each has their own merit; today I chose to go by that of my first ever visit, now many years ago. Coire Chaorach, cupped within the rim- like walls of the previously described hills, is a vast amphitheatre, and as already mentioned its summer livery is the best green suited to the sheep that give the bowl its name. That would not be the case today, though.
There’s limited car parking by the A85 near where a good path plunges into the gloomy plantation; it’s wise to arrive early to avoid a longer road walk. Older guide books speak about the ‘quagmire path’, and indeed it can be so after rain. Today the ground was frozen hard and progress beneath the trees was mercifully quick. It was good to at last burst from those trees into blinding sunshine, sunshine made all the more brilliant by the spectacle of the corrie’s headwalls rearing in snow white splendour.
The snow wasn’t too deep on the corrie floor, but said corrie floor is a sea of heather and gave a tough enough plod, followed by a steep climb onto the ridge of Sron nam Forsairean; it took a sweaty while!
But once on that stony ridge the going was a plain sailing roller coaster jaunt of minor steepenings and ice mired little outcrops. I knew that the view would be growing stupendously behind me; I didn’t want to see it till I reached the summit. Instead I let my eyes wander down into the deepening corrie to my left, or over my right hand shoulder, to those other wonderful Crianlarich hills no more than a stone’s throw away. Stob Garbh and shapely Cruach Ardrain, with their little Munro sister, Beinn Tulaichean, my nearest neighbours, rose alpine and sparkling into a frosty azure sky.
Ben More’s is a rocky summit, there’s ample shelter if you need it. Normally I would drop down into a cavern like rocky hollow, today, so choked with drifted snow was it, and the breeze being mercifully light, I put my back against the nearest rock and had a warming cup of coffee. And of course, that much anticipated ogle at the views.
Everywhere around me, no matter the direction, hills and mountains rolled away from me like some vast white desert of snow dunes. It was spectacular! As I stared around the compass points I reminded myself that, in no matter which direction I gazed, every hill I looked at, be they Corbetts or Munros, I’d stood atop them all. And far away to the north, higher than them all, I saw Ben Nevis.
The bealach between Ben More and Stob Binnein is deep and the way to it steep; getting started from just beyond the summit, come snow and ice, can be a tad tricky. The rock steps just beyond the summit were ice bound and any convenient hand holds choked with crystal hard snow. With my crampons biting and my ice axe scraping I made the short but awkward descent; I’d rather have done it in ascent.
Ahead of me the 300 metres of Stob Binnein’s uniformly smooth northern slopes looked formidable today. I crunched down into the bealach. Bealach-eadar-dha Beinn. It has a lovely ring, that name; it’s meaning is far less prosaic.‘The bealach between the two mountains’, sounds too mundane to me.
On my first summer ascent of the hill, many years closer to my youthful days, I’d raced my brother up to Stob Binnein’s summit; we timed the climb at twenty three minutes! Although the ascent this time was nothing if not straightforward, it took considerably longer.
With its small cairn, the flat windswept summit, almost table like, was so different from the knobbly top of my previous mountain. But the views were every bit as fine. I lingered over another cuppa.
I’d climbed to this point a couple of winters ago, that time from Ben More Farm. The tedious slopes of Ben More from that direction were a lot tougher than those of today’s route, being long and uniform. But that day, after standing at Stob Binnein’s top, I’d gone back to the bealach and battled my way down to the waters of Benmore Burn; it had felt good to be enclosed within the huge walls of Ben More itself and those, across the narrow glen, of Stob Garbh. Seldom do I enjoy going over the same ground in any one day, as would have been the case had I simply followed my outward footprints home. Thus, in spite of an unavoidable road walk of some three miles to end the day, I decided to make my return via the Benmore Burn.
Good snow underfoot made for excellent and rapid progress. I raced back down to the col and then dived off a little north of west. In a quiet white world I flew down Ben More’s westernmost slopes and made for the little black burn whose waters thread through Benmore Glen. As the snow thinned, way down by now, I found the familiar path that soon becomes a track; I followed it down to the road for that hour long walk on tarmac, now with the peaceful water of Loch Iubhair, to keep me company almost all the way to journey’s end.