Mountains by Frank Brooks: Walking a fine line between dedication and madness


We who leave the East coast of Scotland to drive right across to almost the Western fringe of the land, simply to climb a mountain and then drive back home for supper, must be either very dedicated or entirely mad!

You choose...

A pleasenter couple of miles you couldn’t have wished for.

Yet there we were sitting in the car waiting for the day’s first ferry to float us across the little neck of water from Corran to Ardgour and praying that the spits and spots of rain hitting the windscreen wouldn’t amount to much.

Thankfully it didn’t. By the time we were driving off the ferry into Ardgour, a weak shaft or two of low sunlight was beginning to pierce the clag behind us. True, the Ardgour hills that seemed to pull themselves straight from the waters of Loch Linnhe, were still shrouded in low and swirling clouds; as we drove westward however, and finally left the shore of the loch, the cloud slowly lifted and shredded, revealing the steep rough hills walling the glen into which we drove. Soon we were parked on the rough and ready roadside plot that seemed to have been put there just for the likes of walking folk like us.

The sun was trying harder now. In front of us a long bleak glen pierced northwards between the yellow hills of Druim na Iubhair, on the right and the rougher looking Sron a’ Gharbh Bhig, to the left. Dark and uninviting looked the glen of Coire an Iubhair, just then.

So we picked up the obvious path which would take us onto the Sron and bring us more quickly onto the heights above. A rough and stony path is was at first, steep and almost scrambly. It was a path that quickly gave us views (though for the present a little smoky), down into the glen with its glistening stream and, over our shoulders as we climbed, a growing panorama over Loch Linnhe and Lochaber.

Soon we were up in the grass, and today the grass was frosty. The path eventually disappeared on us, leaving us to plod ever upwards and onto the first eminence of the day, Garbh Bheinn’s 823 metre South East Top. We arrived in the company of a gale that was right then sending shredded clouds racing over our heads.

But what a view! Earlier this morning we’d driven through a cloud claggy Glencoe and seen virtually nothing of The Three Sisters; now, looking back over the blue waters of Loch Linnhe, the open maw of the glen was as sharp in the distance as only a frosty day could make it. Bidein nam Bian, the bulk of the Aonoach Eagach’s Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, and the little Pap of Glencoe framed the “V” of the valley beautifully. Farther out the Mamores rose while beyond them again, still veiled in morning mist, lurked Ben Nevis.

We stood on a frosty top of grass and rock and little rock pools not quite lochans. Before us ran a deep and wide trench-like col backed by the imposing rocky walls that guard the reigning peak itself. Garbh translates as rough, the craggy scene before us was rough looking indeed.

We dropped sharply into what proved to be a rocky wind tunnel. Bitter cold too was the gale that screamed through the trench and threatened to knock us off our feet. Our intended way off, once we’d made it to the summit, was from a sharp gully down at the eastern end of the col; we let the wind blow us in that direction for an inspection of the route. We found its upper section choked with old but iron hard snow; in view of the fact that we’d left ice axes and crampons in the car, it didn’t look appealing. Most probably we’d go off by our upward route.

Never quite a scramble, the ascent of the frosted rocky bastions supporting the summit was nonetheless a slippery scrabble. Weaving upwards, in and around the rocky steps, was fun to say the least. Even walking around the summit cairn with our cameras snapping at all in every direction, called for care if we were not to find ourselves ignominiously upended by the glass like ground we walked on or, more likely, bowled over by the wind.

Enough is enough! Satisfied with captured pics we made our way back into the col, more gingerly it has to be admitted, than on our previous ascent. We were hungry! Some way down we chanced on an overhanging rock, a shallow alcove in fact, where we could hunker down out of the wind and take our elevenses whilst watching the rest of the world blowing by.

The best way off the mountain is definitely via the afore mentioned gully. Could we chance it? We let the wind bowl us back along to its exit for another look. On closer inspection the snow didn’t amount to that much; supposing one of us lost his footing, it would hardly be catastrophic, an undignified slide of a few dozen feet at worst and perhaps a bruise or two to nurse. In the end we simply sat on the hard snow and ‘bum-slid’ our way down to easier ground.

And how glad we were that we did so! Instantly we were out of the wind. I swear that you could sit at a point in the top of the gully with your head hard put to keep its hat on, and your legs in another flat calm world! Soon we found ourselves among the glorious rock scenery for which Garbh Bheinn is best known. It’s cathedral like! The path we discovered wove a tortuous course between craggy walls, best of which was The Pinnacle Ridge. Though much foreshortened to begin with it showed its stupendous character the farther down we dropped. Amongst huge boulders the beginnings of the Abhainn Coire an Iubhair gave us tinkling company. Before long the tinkle grew to gurgling and then became a proper noisy burn. At some point lower down, as the glen gave hints of its first widening, our path leapt the water for its final seaward traverse, where it did so, hot now that the sun was high above us, we stooped to quench our thirsts.

We still had a fair trot ahead of us. But a pleasanter couple of miles we couldn’t have wished for. The abhainn was the star, of course. For those last few miles it trundled its way beneath the walls of, on the eastern side, Sgorr Bhic Echarna, with its Druim an Iubhair, and those, to the west, of Garbh Bheinn. Here and there small waterfalls enlivened its course, inviting us down to drink the frothy brew. At one point the waters, very low this week, passed over a wide series of slabs which themselves have been sculptured over the aeons by more turbulent flows. For a long while the road, and our car (the only one in the makeshift car park), was in plain view. But we weren’t hurrying. The day had grown hot; we walked the muddy path slowly. But we walked not with any care of slipping or getting muddy boots, we walked slowly simply because this was a place to relish, not to rush. We didn’t want the day to end...