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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Arrochar Mountains


By GILBERT THOMSON.

To say that it is easy to get from the foot to the top of a particular hill is, from a climber's point of view, very much the reverse of an attraction; and to a certain extent the same holds true even with regard to reaching the foot of the hill. The difficulty of access and the difficulty of climbing both add their share to the triumph of getting at the top, and a mountain which is in every way formidable has considerable attractions of its own. But it frequently happens that the available time is so small that the only choice is between going to a hill of easy access and not going at all, and so we may rejoice in the fact that many well-known mountains, and a much larger number of less familiar but still interesting peaks are within a very short distance. With the construction of the West Highland Railway, Arrochar will become one of the most accessible parts of the Highlands, and although at present and especially in winter, it requires some considerable manceuvring to reach it conveniently, still even now it is not much out of the world. Once there, the hills are all around. The narrow gorge of Loch Long runs between ranges of hills, not very high on the east, but on the west and north, rising range over range from Argyle's Bowling Green to the summits which fill up the space between Glen Croe and Glen Falloch. Of these summits four are familiar—Ben Arthur, better known as the Cobbler (2,891 feet), Ben Ime (3,318), Ben Vane (3,004), and Ben Voirlich (3,092)—none of them of outstanding height, but each of them, and especially the Cobbler, having many points of interest. Immediately to the N.E. of the Cobbler rises another hill— the Sugach, 3,000 feet. The Cobbler has really three peaks, the southmost being a steep rocky spur, the central and highest a huge monolith perched on the edge of a comparatively flat space, while the northern one is the cliff which overhangs so heavily and does so much to give the Cobbler his extraordinary appearance. The fanciful resemblance this hill bears to a cobbler bending over his work is notorious. The northern peak is the man himself, the central block is his last, and opposite him—to the south—sits his wife. The other three hills have no such outstanding characteristics, though Ben Ime and Ben Vane are very rough when their small height is considered ; and the face of Ben Voirlich which overlooks Loch Sloy is about as steep a grass slope as one need look for.

The autumn holiday in last October was fixed on by some Glasgow members as a suitable opportunity for making the acquaintance of this district. As it was impossible to do much by starting in the morning from Glasgow, we found our way to Arrochar the night before, reaching it about nine o'clock, after a walk of ten miles from Garelochhead, through the gathering darkness. As we intended to reach Glasgow the following night, and as the last chance was the steamer from Tarbet at five, it was obviously necessary to make an early start, and five A.M. was the hour fixed for leaving the inn. As a matter of fact, we got off at 5.15, the delay being due to the necessity of using strong persuasive measures to get some of the party out of bed. We rued that quarter of an hour before the day was done. It was, of course, quite dark as we made our way round the head of Loch Long, and the stillness was only broken when we roused an occasional dog from his slumbers. When we left the road twenty minutes after starting, just after crossing a large burn (the Allt-a-Bhalachdin), the light was not good enough for any rough climbing, but the morning was clear, and the dawn breaking on the hills behind us and spreading over the landscape, formed a beautiful scene, none the less appreciated that none of us had an extensive acquaintance with sunrise effects.

The daylight came in good time, for the upper part of the hill needed care and accuracy. We followed the deep central depression, inclining somewhat to the left, until the peak on that side came within easy reach. We then turned more decidedly to the left, and scrambled up the steep rocky stair formed by the broken face of the hill. Although steep, there was no particular difficulty, as the corners and clefts of rock gave excellent hold both for hands and feet, and by 7.20 we had reached the first summit, a platform completely surrounded by rock descents more or less steep. The attempt to make a straight line for the second peak, which as seen from the first looked like a sort of fantastic chimney, proved a failure, the rocks on that side appearing from above almost precipitous. A circuit was made to the south, involving a considerable detour and also a much greater descent than we had counted on. The rocks even with the detour were still steep enough to make a slip quite possible and very awkward, and we were considerably below the col before the northern course could be resumed. We afterwards decided that with time and care the direct route would have been quite possible. Working our way round, and hugging the base of the rocks very closely, we reached the central peak from one of its sides; a steep and nearly smooth stone ridge confronting us, with a drop below of considerable depth. Two of our party tackled the ridge, working round on a somewhat precarious footing, and reached the top without difficulty. The central block of stone is buttressed at each end by rock masses leaning against it, and so forming two curious natural doorways. The descent was made by dropping some six feet off the south buttress by the east side. landing on a narrow ledge which formed the threshold of the door. Creeping through (it was not of standard dimensions), we found that the ledge continued on the west side of the main block to the other opening, after passing through which there was no difficulty in getting to the flat ground beneath. The others of the party had in the meantime reconnoitred leisurely, and had found it much easier to reverse the process by starting where their predecessors had come down, and after passing through one hole, to climb at once to the top from the west side. One of the most striking features is the extremely contorted condition of the rocks, which is well seen in the doorways. This peak is much more attractive to one who likes climbing for its own sake than to one who wishes the maximum of view with the minimum of exertion. There is no cairn on the actual top, but there is one on the highest point of the ridge on which the big blocks stand.

From the first peak to the second we had had a tolerably rough scramble of half-an-hour, but from the second to the third was merely a stroll for half that time, at the end of which we found ourselves on the top of the projecting rock almost before we realised that we were climbing it. The overhang is considerable, and a large slab of stone, looking like an exaggerated flagstone, had been somehow started from its bed and pushed a few feet over the cliff, where it seemed to form an admirable trap for anybody of sufficient weight to overbalance it. None of us tried.

The day was young yet, and we had already compared ourselves to Longfellow's "great men," who, "while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night," but now our course was downward. Straight to the north Ben Ime towered three or four hundred feet above us, the upper part being shrouded in mist, while in the immediate foreground there was a dip of six or seven hundred feet to the col, a little to the right of the straight line. The descent and corresponding rise on the other side were relieved from monotony by occasional marshes, and as we climbed we got on to the eastern shoulder, and followed the ridge, over loose stones of all sizes, to the peak, which we reached shortly after nine o'clock. In ordinary circumstances breakfast would at that hour have been a very recent institution, but now there was a retrospect of over four hours, so twenty minutes were spent in adjusting on a more equitable basis the weight which had previously been carried by turns in a knapsack. The view from this, our highest point, was unfortunately nil; and when, about half- past nine, we started for Ben Vane, every landmark was blotted out, and a compass course had to be set. This led us down a steep gully, covered, like the whole face of the hill, with loose debris, and it was not till we were well down, and so clear of the mist, that we observed a curious comb of rock stretching down the hill-side parallel to our track. It looked as if it would afford some interesting scrambling, and was slightly to the east of our course. The col between Ben Ime and Ben Vane is only about 1,600 feet above sea-level, so that the climb to Ben Vane was considerable. The face of the hill is grass, tolerably steep, and varied by marshes and big boulders, and there are a number of apparent tops before the real one is reached, which is somewhat suddenly at the last. This peak was not high enough to be actually in the mist, but the view was restricted by the overhanging clouds, and perhaps the best thing about it was the peep into the narrow basin of Loch Sloy, close under our feet. Ben Vane is too much shut in to have a good all-round prospect. We looked with interest over the deep and narrow notch between us and Ben Voirlich, which we meant to reach, and a consultation was held as to the best route. The two peaks are almost equal in height, but Loch Sloy, by whose outlet we had to pass, is only at a level of about 800 feet. We decided to make direct for this outlet, and then to attack Ben Voirlich by the side of the most conspicuous of the gullies which seam his face, and speak eloquently of the winter torrents. From Ben Vane to Loch Sloy the descent is a rough one, steeper and more broken than anything we had encountered since leaving the Cobbler. Rock faces cropped out here and there, some of them good for scrambling down, while others compelled a detour, generally to the right. In little over half an hour we had reached Loch Sloy, and made a halt for lunch. The solitude here was profound. The surrounding hills, though of moderate height, were rugged and impressive, and one could almost imagine that the dark waters at our feet, and the shaggy hills around, had been undisturbed by mankind since they ceased to echo the war-cry of the Macfarlanes.

It was almost mid-day when we prepared to tackle our last and steepest antagonist. Steep enough he was, especially to limbs and wind, which had already undergone a considerable amount of exertion. Our gully continued straight up the face of the hill, till near the top we followed a fork to the left. The slope was a grass one, but among the steepest of its kind, so much so as to suggest the possibility of a precipitate return to the valley. The fork, however, led us to the comparatively level ridge, but many a halt had been called before that, and the clinometer observations (each of which necessitated a stop) had been taken much more frequently than on the previous hills. It was half-past one when we sat down on the lee side of the cairn, tired, but triumphant, and enjoyed the rest and the view. Although the distant features were hazy, this view was the best of the day. Ben Lomond was prominent near at hand; while, as the eye ranged northward, the peaks of Ben More and Stobinian, and the graceful ridge of Ben Lui, with its four points, stood out—at one moment clear against the sky, and at another melted away in the mist. Before long the chill breeze made itself felt, and with recovered breath we started for Arrochar, following the same ridge by which we had finished the ascent, and holding to it till we reached the head of Glen Loin.

The slope on the ridge was a much gentler and longer one than the face by which we had climbed. Glen Loin is traversed by a track, beautiful in its surroundings at any time, and doubly beautiful when the trees are clothed, as they then were, with their gorgeous autumnal dress; but the roughness of the track, and ultimately the length of it, made a sharper, if not a more lasting, impression on our mind. We had to leave Arrochar for Tarbet at half-past four, and were promising ourselves a mighty dinner before starting; but, alas! for the best laid schemes.

As we entered Glen Loin, we never doubted that we would reach Arrochar in an hour, the distance apparently being under four miles; but in the windings of the path minute followed minute with alarming rapidity, and in place of fifteen minutes to four it was seven minutes past when we reached the hotel. As we dared not leave after half-past four for Tarbet, that left exactly twenty-three minutes for a wash and dinner, and then, very ruefully, we rose and girded ourselves, feeling still a great void within, and leaving a tempting dinner half finished. We encroached on our half-hour after all, and had the pleasure of being hailed, before we came in sight of Tarbet, with the information, "She's in at the pier." Our expedition resolved itself into a wild pell-mell rush—" de'il tak' the hindmost"—with a vigorous waving of sticks and other devices to attract the attention of those on board—all of which gave conclusive, but to us most uncomfortable, proof that our energies were not quite exhausted. We did get on board, however, and received a lesson (by no means the first) that in mountain climbing it does not do to calculate out the time too finely. We reached Glasgow about eight, and though probably the next day brought with it stiff muscles, and a heavy climb would not have been enthusiastically attempted, still each member of the party —nothing daunted—looked forward to the next opportunity for a similar enterprise among our native hills.


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