Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Alps - Arrochar, not French

On the west shores of Loch Long above the village of Arrochar is a cluster of rugged, shapely peaks called the Arrochar Alps. For years I have travelled north on the train up the other shore and completely ignored them in favour of farther away places. Perhaps it’s because at that point, about an hour out of Glasgow, the catering trolley comes through the train and I’m distracted by the promise of hot tea and other goodies. Or perhaps it’s because I always imagined Arrochar to be full of hordes of daytrippers from the city, walking along the waterfront eating ice-cream and chips. Whatever the reason, I finally decided last weekend to find out what was going on up there in the Arrochar Alps.

West Coast Motors may sound like a second-hand Glasgow car dealer but it’s actually the bus company that runs a service along the bonny banks of Loch Lomond and up to Arrochar. As the bus trundled north, Jim the driver entertained passengers with local history and folklore and was even kind enough to drop me right at the start of the walk up into the hills. On a chilly morning the path zig-zagged up through forestry, eventually climbing above the clouds of a temperate inversion to reveal views to snow-dusted Ben Lomond.

Higher up, the path shook off the trees, crested a ridge and made me stop in my tracks and shout out loud to nobody, “wow”. Here was my first close view of that iconic mountain, the Cobbler. It’s so named because its rocky pinnacles are said to resemble a cobbler bending over his last but I thought it looked more like a raging bull with two great horns. In its early winter garb of powder snow and frozen cascades, it looked especially beautiful.

But I was heading for different mountains and the path continued to climb, squeezing a way through two giant rocks called the Narnain Boulders. The boulders are glacial erratics, stranded here when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated. They are famous as a much-loved overnight doss for Glasgow climbers in the old days. Of course, that was when hill folk were made of sterner stuff, not like today’s namby-pambies who stay in B&Bs back down in Arrochar. With ice underfoot and a heavy pack, I made glacial progress up the mountain, eventually popping out at a high, flat place called Bealach a’Mhaim. It was rocky, icy, wind-scoured and exposed - a perfect spot for base camp.

With the tent up, I shouldered a lighter pack and skipped up my first peak, Beinn Narnain. As I gained height, the patches of snow and ice amalgamated until finally the last few hundred metres were gripped in hard snow and I strapped on the crampons for the first time this winter. The clouds of the morning inversion had dispersed and the sun had broken through, picking out a panorama of snow-capped peaks and the glinting waters of Long Long far below. The air was cold and crisp and clear. I stayed up there, breathing it all in, until the numbing temperature forced me back down to the tent. As I left the top an old man in a bobble hat was on his way up, moving slowly and doubled over his walking pole like a cobbler over his last.  I asked if he would take my photo and as he did so he told me that he had climbed this mountain many times. Given the effort the ascent had caused him, I guessed this might be his last time up here and I felt sad.

Beinn Narnain means “hill of notches” which I am prepared to accept is a reasonable description of the nobbly, rocky terrain in its upper reaches. But I’m at a loss to understand the name of the next peak I climbed, Beinn Ime, which translates as “hill of butter”. Perhaps in days gone by it was known that cattle grazed on the slopes of Beinn Ime provided particularly fine dairy produce. Beinn Ime and its neighbouring Alps, being so close to Glasgow, are quite popular but one advantage of camping high on the mountain is that you can beat everybody else to the top. 

So it was on Sunday morning that I had Beinn Ime all to myself and the thought crossed my mind that it doesn’t get much better than this - trekking along a ridge of pristine snow, crampons biting into the hard surface, on a perfect winter morning of clear skies and snowy mountain vistas. 

I ambled slowly back down to Arrochar in the gathering dusk as drifts of woodsmoke from its cosy cottages settled above the trees on a windless afternoon. Arrochar was not full of hordes of daytrippers but was dark and quiet and peaceful as I walked along the waterfront. It was too cold for ice cream but I couldn’t resist eating chips.

More photos on Flickr - click on the logo on the right.

Fact File
Start/finish: Arrochar by Citylink/West Coast Motors buses between Glasgow and Inverary or Oban.
Map: OS Landranger 56
Route: Heading out the west side of Arrochar on the A83 there is a Forestry Commission car park on the left - the bus driver will drop you here if you ask nicely and the start of the path is immediately opposite. Follow the path up through the forestry and when you reach a track by a transmitter turn left then a quick right. Ignore the left hand fork for the Cobbler higher up and keep on the path to its end in Bealach a'Mhaim where the routes are rougher. From the bealach it's a straightfoward climb up the northwest ridge of Beinn Narnain and the south ridge of Beinn Ime. 
Tip: The Fish and Chip shop in Arrochar must be the quaintest in Scotland and on a cold evening you can sit inside with hot tea.

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