Regular hill goers will be familiar with such hills as Ben Lomond, the Crianlarich hills, the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lui, the Tyndrum and Glen Orchy Hills. These alpine- like peaks seem to argue amongst themselves for prominence amongst the Argyll hills. Though every one of them is a mountain worthy of a visit at any time of the year, each undoubtedly looks its best when smothered with the snows of winter.
So it was that once again my brother and I stood atop Cruach Ardrain on a scintillating winter’s day with half of Scotland stretched around us draped in a pure white blanket of snow.
But getting to the summit hadn’t been easy; twice already this winter we’d tried, both times only to be blasted off well short of our goal by fierce winds and blizzard conditions.
Things change over the years. Our first visit to these hills, some 20 or more years ago, had been by way of the Glen Falloch Forestry tracks, an absolute boggy nightmare! Later we’d tried from Glen Earb, only to be sent scurrying back to the car by the blizzards just mentioned. So for this visit we were happy to learn that there was now a much better route via a track a few metres down the road from the Glen More Hotel, just east of Crianalarich. A decent forestry track this time and a much more auspicious start.
Indeed the tracks escorted us through the forestry and almost to the foot of the open hillside. Within half an hour or so of leaving the car we were up on The Grey Height, the first nail in today’s horse shoe round.
Cloud cover was patchy with lots of blue sky; the light was perfect for photography. Recent frosts had turned the normally mushy ground into iron so we fitted crampons early. Climbing higher we were soon in a white desert punctuated by contrasting black crags.
Winds gusting to eighty miles an hour had been forecast. Standing atop Meall Daimh, we looked across the deep col, to the broad rocky ridge of our first objective, Cruach Ardrain. The wind was scouring huge columns of spindrift from its flanks and driving ferocious ‘snow devils’ high into the next glen. We looked at each and shook our heads in unison; ‘was this to be yet another futile attempt?’, we wondered.
Down we went. Mountain passes usually double as wind tunnels. Often, as you climb back out, the wind loses much of its power; you sometimes find respite. We could but hope. Leaning sideways against the blast we struggled across the gap.
“It should ease a bit once we start climbing again”, I shouted to my brother. If he heard me above the roar of the hurricane, he would hear nothing more but the howling wind for quite some time to come!
What followed was as horrendous an ascent as I have made in quite some years. For half an hour we crawled slowly upwards, much of the time pinned to the slope by the savage blast. The best tactic seemed to be to ram the ice axe into any crevice available, then grab a rock or boulder with one’s free hand and scurry up a few paces as the wind allowed. We didn’t present a dignified sight! In fact, when at one point I glanced across at my brother, he seemed to be waving about on his axe like a flag...I’m sure that to him I must have looked the same! One thing was certain, that ascent was definitely exhilarating!
Eventually we gained the summit plateau. As we crunched the short distance to the cairn we were at least able to walk semi upright. But though the wind had certainly eased, it was still too fierce for lingering; how grateful we were to find shelter amongst the rocks just below, on the leeward, side for lunch.
The next leg of our tour was relatively peaceful. It was still difficult to walk but with every passing 15 minutes or so we sensed the forecaster’s promised easing slowly coming true. Thus, on pristine snow and water ice, a delight for speedy progress, we made the gentle climb onto Beinn Tullachain. From here we enjoyed wonderful views of The Trossachs. We saw Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin, Ben Lomond, too. In the opposite direction, huge across the intervening glens, Ben More and Stob Binnein, soared majestic.
The best of the walking was still to come. After returning to the col, we crunched our way across crisp virgin snow to the foot of Stob Garbh, the last Top of the round. We passed through an amphitheatre of stupendous crags; there were boulders here the size of houses. Many of the crags were gripped by fantastic smoky icicles so big they resembled frozen waterfalls.
Although we’d met a few folk on the Munros, only one other walker had ventured into this Shangri-La. We followed his crampon trail through the crags and rocky undulations until we stood at the sun kissed cairn, the past five hours spread around us in all its alpine splendour.
From its summit Stob Garbh throws a long gentle ridge in the general direction of Crianlarich; it led us by way of Stob Coire Bhuidhe, to leave us above the crags of Creag na h-Iolair.
Way down at its northern foot our homework indicated a break in the otherwise impenetrable forestry of the lower flanks. I pointed to a likely candidate; my brother preferred a different choice. At the mental toss of a coin we went his way, a dead end as it turned out.
No matter, an easy traverse back the way would soon have us at the right spot. Until, thrashing through a small stand of conifers, I managed to hang myself from a low branch by my protruding ice axe!
Unaware of my temporary predicament my brother battered on...and vanished into thin air! He couldn’t be far ahead. I called his name. Nothing! I shouted louder; still no response. I began to worry lest he’d maybe tripped and banged his head or something like. When it became obvious that he was not in fact ahead, I retraced my steps along the tree line and blew a blast or two on my whistle. Eventually there came a shrill reply-he sounded miles away!
And then I spotted the little gap in the trees. In my concern to find him up in front, I’d marched right past him. In I went...and immediately sank to my knees!
Having been so grateful to have avoided the morass of those earlier expeditions, I was dismayed to discover that the day had saved something even worse for its finale. I struggled and floundered and cussed.
I eventually emerged at the other end caked to my thighs in gooey slime. On a log sat my brother, waiting and grinning from ear to ear.
“I knew you were going to enjoy that bit”, he said sadistically. “Anyway, where’ve you been all this time...”