Wild Camp Perfection in the Arrochar Alps easily in the space of a weeked – is it possible? Not only is it possible - it can be amazing.
About an hour before this photo was taken, I decided I was never going wild camping again. Having spent an entirely sleepless night inside a sweltering tent, where for seven hours I’d been sniffed, chewed, licked, clawed and generally terrorised by a manic Jack Russell terrier, the white flag was on the verge of being waved. At 5am I leapt from my sleeping bag, tore open the tent door and began to unleash an expletive-ridden rant into the crisp Highland air – then I saw this view, and fell in love with wild camping all over again.
Our tents were pitched in a grassy bealach, right in the heart of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Behind us stood The Cobbler, one of the truly great Scottish mountains; to our left and right were the strapping Munros of Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain, rocky, rugged and loaded with adventure; and directly ahead was an ocean of silky grey. When we’d zipped into our tents the previous evening – under attack from a legion of midges – we’d been treated to a classic mountain vista: all rock and grass, with hulking grey peaks thrusting upwards from luscious green valleys. But if we thought that was good, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
As dawn broke and the sun crept above the horizon, the landscape took on an unearthly feel. Gone were the lochs, valleys, burns and ridgelines that had characterised our ascent; and in their place was a surreal panorama of low-slung fog pierced by dark summits. You know that feeling when you gaze out of an aeroplane window and see nothing but white cloud with the odd conical peak poking through? This was pretty much the same, except without the hassle of five hours festering in an airport beforehand.
A couple of hours later we’d packed away our gear and clambered up Beinn Narnain – where the views were so good I felt like retiring from hillwalking on the spot and living there – and by 9am we were back at the car. We’d left our office in Cambridgeshire (360 miles south) at 10am the previous day, started walking around 6pm, summited The Cobbler at 8pm, set up camp by 10pm, bagged a Munro before breakfast on day two, and were south of Glasgow by lunchtime. We’d pulled off the perfect smash-and-grab adventure – full of classic mountains, outrageous scenery and uncharacteristically magnificent weather. We got in and out before the conditions turned foul and were back at our desks the following morning, having completed the entire trip in little more than 30 hours. Here’s how we did it...
My day started unexceptionally in the Trail office, doing what I often do: staring blankly at the mountain weather forecast and wishing I was outdoors. Then something truly amazing happened. My grainy computer screen told me that the sun was shining... for at least two full days... in Scotland! At first I thought it must be a practical joke, but after receiving confirmation from the Met Office it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
We grabbed a car, grabbed our camping gear, grabbed my angry little dog, then started the long haul up the A1. We didn’t have time to venture too far into the Highlands or Cairngorms, so the peaks surrounding Loch Lomond were obvious targets. Ben Lomond may be Scotland’s southernmost Munro, but Beinn Narnain is probably the most accessible. Sandwiched between Loch Lomond and Loch Long, around an hour’s drive north of Glasgow, this craggy beast of a mountain is one of the first big challenges you’ll encounter if you tackle Scotland from the south. Even better, it sits right next to The Cobbler.
So named by locals because its crooked outline is thought to resemble a shoemaker at work, The Cobbler – otherwise known as Ben Arthur – has a richly deserved reputation. With three individual rocky tops and an 884m summit that can’t be reached without squeezing through a small hole and inching along an exposed ledge, it’s one of the finest peaks in the Highlands – and the perfect starting point for our camping adventure. So at 6pm we parked in the large Forestry Commission car park at the head of Loch Long, just off the busy A83 road, and started uphill in balmy evening temperatures.
You’ll be hard pushed to find a more rewarding walk in the UK than approaching The Cobbler on this path. It begins by winding through woodland, before running alongside the clear waters of the Allt a’ Bhalachain and past the awesome Narnain Boulders. The route then cuts across a burn and heads right into the rocky centre of the peak, where a mixture of stone steps and easy scrambling guide you through a spectacular hanging corrie and up to the broad col between The Cobbler’s northern and central peaks. The central summit, marked by a solid stone column, is the highest point; and only by scrambling to its pinnacle can you truly claim to have conquered the mountain.
We tagged the summit in fading daylight and – after bizarrely passing a woman meditating on the mountain’s northern peak – dropped to our campsite at Bealach a’ Mhaim. At the head of two valleys and surrounded by three of the grandest peaks in southern Scotland, this is a very cool place to spend the night. The ground was damp and rocky in places, but we found two perfect pitching spots and with regular water supplied by a stream running down Ben Ime’s southern flank, everything pointed towards a memorable evening lounging around in the open air and chatting nonsense under the stars. And then the midge invasion began.
I’ve always known those blood-sucking pests can be a problem, particularly in the Scottish mountains, but nothing could have prepared us for the onslaught. We were relentlessly savaged as we assembled our tents in record time, then forced into our canvas dormitories at least two hours before light vanished from the sky. The good news was I had a good book and a bag of Kettle Chips for company, but the bad news was I wasn’t alone. My mischievous canine Mario was sealed in the tent with me, seemingly on a mission to provide me with the worst night’s sleep of my life. He panted, growled, snored, whimpered and barked his way through every second, leaving me bleary eyed and boiling with anger when I emerged into the cool morning air.
As mentioned earlier, that fury soon dissipated as the views began to unfold around us. The Arrochar Alps looked sensational from our camping spot, but we knew the rewards would be greater the higher we climbed; so we dropped our tents, shouldered our packs and headed for the top of Beinn Narnain. Spooky sheep silhouettes loomed out of the mist as vapour seemed to chase us up the mountain, but we soon burst back into blazing sunlight, withmountaintops looming large all around us.
The Cobbler was its usual menacing self, complete with scorpion-tail profile cutting sharply into the skyline, but Ben Lomond took star billing. With thick white cloud shrouding its lower slopes and a plume of mist trailing from its summit pyramid, it had a truly Himalayan feel. A couple of hours later, after scrambling down Beinn Narnain’s fantastically gnarled southern flank and weaving through a mixture of forest and fast-flowing water, we were back at the car and heading for a well-earned bacon sandwich.
If you love camping, or even if you don’t, you should plan an adventure like this. Waking up on a silent mountaintop, with the hassles of civilisation hidden far below, is a feeling you’ll never forget. All you’ll need is a car, two days, and some decent weather.
Words: Oli Reed / © Trail Magazine
This feature originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of Trail Magazine