A sun kissed cairn and a sadist...


Regular readers will be familiar with such mountains as Ben Lomond, the Crianlarich Hills, the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lui and the Tyndrum- Bridge of Orchy hills, and of course many others in this area that we have visited over the years.

These are hills that draw like magnets,never more so than when winter has laid down a thick covering of snow to give them an alpine look. It will come as no surprise then that recently, on a scintillatingly rare day of sublime winter sunshine, I found myself once again at the cairn atop Cruach Ardrain, with half of Scotland laying about me in an ermine gown of snow.

But first, of course, I had to reach that mountain’s summit. In fact I’d already tried twice since Christmas; on both occasions I’d been blasted off by blizzards. As it is, some years ago my brother and I had approached the hill by way of forestry tracks issuing from Glen Falloch, near Crianlarich; the paths we’d discovered that day were an oozy nightmare of gooey mud; we vowed then that we’d never try that approach again! Our first successful ascent of Cruach Ardrain along with neighbouring Beinn Tullaichean, had been from Glen Earb, a much drier, tree scant Our trip today found us tackling the hills from the opposite side of Crianlarich, very close to the Ben More Hotel. There were still plantations but this time good forestry tracks escorted us all the way to the foot of the open hillside. Within half an hour of leaving the car park we were climbing the flanks of ‘Grey Height’, the first nail in the so called ‘Crianlarich Horseshoe’.The cloud cover was patchy allowing the early winter’s sunlight to pierce big blue patches of sky; the light was perfect for photography. Recent frosts had turned the normally mushy ground to iron so we fitted crampons early. Climbing higher we were soon in a white desert punctuated here and there by contrasting black crags. In spite of a lovely start to the day, winds of up to eighty miles per hour had been forecast. Standing atop Meall Daimh, the first minor top of the day, we looked across the deep col to the rocky ridge of our first Munro; the wind was already scouring huge columns of spindrift from its flanks and driving ferocious looking ‘snow devils’ high into the next glen. Walker beware! Down we went. Mountain passes usually double as wind tunnels; often, as you climb back out, the wind loses much of its power. Leaning sideways into the gale we struggled into the gap.”It should ease a bit once we start climbing again”, I shouted into my companions tightly laced up hood. If he heard me above the roar of the hurricane he would hear me no more for quite some time...What followed was as horrendous (and yet, perversely, exhilarating), an ascent as I have made in many a year! For half an hour we crawled slowly upwards, much of the time pinned to the steep slope by the savage blast. The best tactic seemed to ram the ice axe into any crevice available, grab a rock or boulder with one’s free hand and scurry up as few or as many paces as the wind allowed. We were not a dignified sight! In fact, when at one point I glanced across at my companion, he seemed to be waving about on his axe like a flag! We eventually reached the summit plateau. As we walked the short distance to the cairn (1046 metres), we were finally able to walk but semi upright. Though the wind had eased a little, it was still too fierce for lingering; how grateful we were to find some shelter amid the rocks just below the leeward side of the mountain. Even so, lunch was a very cold affair!

The next leg of our tour was relatively peaceful. It was still difficult to walk but we were at last beginning to sense the forecaster’s promised easing slowly coming true. Thus we made the gently climb onto Beinn Tulaichean; we walked on pristine snow and occasional water ice, a delight for speedy progress.

The name of our previous mountain, Cruach Ardrain, means: stack of the high part; Beinn Tulaichean translates as: hill of the hillocks, (a name best appreciated when climbing the mountain from the south). Both names sound a little mundane in the English; neither is a mundane hill, however, especially not the views from their summits. From the summit of this, our second Munro (946 metres), we enjoyed wonderful views of the Trossachs, with Ben Ledi and As well as Ben Lomond we saw Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin, each huge and white across their respective intervening hills and glens. Nearby Ben More and Stob Binnien, both regal, vied for the prize of ‘winter-land beauty queen’.

Two Munros climbed and still the best was yet to come. After returning to the col we made our way across crisp virgin snow, to the foot of Stob Garbh, (rough peak; 959 metres), the last top in the round. En route we passed through an amphitheatre graced by huge crags and boulders, some the size of small country mansions. Many of these crags were gripped by fantastic curtains of smoky icicles, one or two so big as to resemble frozen waterfalls. Although we’d met a few folk on the Munros, only one other person had bothered to venture into this hidden Shangri-la. We followed his crampon trail through the crags and frozen undulations until we stood at Stob Garbh’s sun kissed cairn, the past five hours or so spread behind us in alpine splendour. From its summit Stob Garbh points a long and slender finger of ridge in the general direction of Crianlarich. Way down at its northern foot, our homework indicated a little break in the otherwise impenetrable looking forestry of the lower flanks. I pointed down at a likely looking candidate; my companion favoured a different choice. We went for his, it seemed easier to get to. A dead end, as it happened! No matter! An easy traverse back the way should soon have us at the correct spot. Until, thrashing through a small stand of conifers, I hanged myself from a low branch by my protruding ice axe; (it was stowed atop my backpack).

My companion battered on regardless...and vanished He couldn’t be too far ahead. I shouted his name. Nothing! I shouted louder. Still no response. After 10 minutes I began to worry lest he’d tripped and banged his head or such like! When it became obvious that he wasn’t ahead, I retraced my steps along the tree line and blew a blast or two on my whistle. Eventually there came a shrill reply-it sounded miles away! And then I saw the gap in the trees. In my concern to find him up front, I’d sailed right past him. In I went...and promptly sank to my knees! Having been so grateful to have avoided the morasses of our earlier expeditions, I was here dismayed to discover that the day had reserved something even worse for its finale. I struggled and floundered and cussed!

My companion was sitting at the end of it all, grinning from ear to ear. “I knew you were going to enjoy that bit”, he said sadistically.”Anyway, where’ve you been...”