It was a dark, damp and cold March morning when I left home. My aim was to spend a couple of days in Glencoe and aim to climb and camp on at least one Munro (which is the name for a Scottish mountain over 3000ft). Seeing as I would be passing the Lake District on the way, I decided to leave at 4am in the hope of catching sunrise high up on Blencathra. To cut a long story short it was no good, at 700 meters the cloud forced me back down and I watched the Eden valley fill with golden morning light and I was just too far away to make any images of it. Not a great start to the day but I was probably pushing my luck as it was.
Up the M6 I trundled, stopping for a coffee break in Glasgow which gave me a chance to check the updated forecast and look over my intended route. I was attempting to spend the night on one of regions highest mountains, Ben Starav, tucked away at the heart of Glen Etive. It’s not often visited by tourists but is a firm favourite for munro baggers. Starting from sea level, the hike requires it’s full 1078 meters to be climbed, no easy feat, especially in the winter.
Ploughing on, I arrived in a very damp and dreary Glen Etive, driving the seemingly never ending road towards the head of Loch Etive. I jammed my car onto a worn verge where the walkhighlands guide advised to park. Looking into the cloud above I had my first glimpse of Ben Starav poking through, a snow capped summit making it seem much bigger than it is. Still, a daunting enough scene. I packed my backpack, full to the brim with camping, photography and timelapse gear.
As I let out a grunt as I shouldered my 27kg pack I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy trek. I made haste and followed the path straight into one of the worst bogs I’ve tried to walk across! A local resident had recently diverted the path across a field which was completely unsuitable for even the most determined of walkers. Making it out the otherside my legs where already feeling tired. Maybe that trip up Blencathra wasn’t such a good idea. I began ascending the flanks of the mountain and up past ‘The Robbers Waterfall’, an impressive set of falls taking water down to the loch. The progress was slow and every time I peered towards the summit it seemed as the cloud had dropped even lower. I was feeling pretty down at this point and after slipping over on the wet grass for the fourth time I had hit rock bottom. I hate the fear of failure. Not being able to achieve what I set out to do was very hard to take. However the prospect of putting all this effort just to sit in a cloud just wasn’t motivating me! I therefore, reluctantly (although, secretly glad) turned around and back to the car.
The following day was a mixed bag, dodging the ever changing weather and strong winds it certainly wasn’t a day for high mountains. Feeling quite disheartened by the whole trip I was beginning to doubt if all this effort was worth it. It’s wasn’t until the next day that a weather window opened up. So there I was, standing under Ben Starav once again, a moment of deja vu. Feeling more positive and much more energetic I began the hike once again, although the boggy field was no easier! A couple of hours later I managed to reach my intended camping spot, a flat area that contained a small lochan at 770 meters.
I decided not to carry a lot of water with me due to the lochan near by but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) the pool of water was completely frozen. After 20 minutes of hacking various holes through the 6 inches of ice I finally got through to a puddle of very muddy and contaminated water. Quite frankly I didn’t really want to drink it! I knew I would need to melt some snow to get a drink but this is not a quick process. I pitched the tent and had a quick snack before heading back out in search of a possible sunset. The clouds broke to reveal a few spells of light but they were fleeting.
Once back in the tent I began the arduous task of melting the snow in my stove. At these low temperatures the gas in the canister becomes incredibly inefficient and whilst boiling water in summer might only take a couple of minutes, in winter that time can increase dramatically. With the temperature set to drop to -10 it was to be the coldest night I’ve ever experienced. I awoke numerous times during the night shivering, something I haven’t experienced camping before. I then discovered my sleeping mat kept on deflating meaning I was practically lying on the frozen ground! I didn’t sleep a wink.
By 4am I was praying for sunrise, just so I could get moving and generate some heat. By 5am I’d had it, I put on my frozen boots and strapped on my crampons and jumped out the tent even though it was 2 hours before sunrise. Assembling my camera gear I began the steep hike up the final 250 meters to the summit. As I approached the top the wind suddenly picked up, with spindrift flying around I donned my googles and made my way up carefully. Reaching the summit I was met with a wall of snow whipped up by the strong winds. Large cornices meant I was also limited in what I could photograph and although impressive, I knew couldn’t hang around for long and any and photography would be difficult in the wind. So, oddly, I made the decision to head back down to another viewpoint on the ridge I passed a little earlier.
With time to spare I set up my timelapse gear and watched as the cloud began to break towards the horizon. I was treated to some wonderful light and remained in that position for around 40 minutes watching the light as it developed and moved across the mountains beyond.
The wind had subsided by 8am and I had the whole summit to myself. The visibility was excellent and the clouds began to disappear leaving an extensive blue sky. After a short break and enjoying the vista I went in search of a clear view over Loch Etive. Descendeding the south of the ridge and found the view I was looking for. By 11am, cloud began to appear and a few flakes of snow began to fall.
I made my way back up to the summit, thinking I would continue along the top towards Glas Bheinn Mhor but as the low cloud approached it seemed my luck was up. Besides, I was now running low on water again and having had a great morning I was not disappointed to leave. As I descended back to my tent the cloud engulfed the tops. Passing a few walkers on the way I tried not to reveal what a fantastic morning I’d had!
I jumped into the tent to grab some lunch before starting to pack up, looking outside the clouds began to darken and more snow began to fall. I grabbed my camera and took a couple of pictures of a very dramatic and atmospheric scene.
It was mid afternoon and with sunset a couple of hours away I needed to make a move. With the snow still falling I packed up and shouldered the heavy pack for the final time and began my decent back to the car. I bumped into two friends who had visited the area to bag 2 other munros just beyond Starav, it was nice to share some stories and make the damp walk down to the car and back to reality that bit more tolerable. With the emotional rollercoaster I had been through the past couple of days I started to feel like it had all been worth it.