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CRUACHAN


Cruachan was the war cry of Clan Campbell but I guess we'll have to forgive it that 😁. It's a whole range in itself, and as it forms the southern edge of the big hills it dominates the view in much of Argyll. It isn't quite the highest peak in the modern county as Beinn Laoigh is just on the boundary, and pre-1974 Argyllshire included Bidean nam Bian in Glen Coe but it's definitely Argyll's totemic mountain. Looking south from the Glen Coe or Blackmount hills it forms a reptilian silhouette across the southern skyline, forming a boundary wall to the mountain kingdom.


The Cruachan range

The Cruachan range across Loch Etive


Beyond be dragons (though as everyone knows, Black Duncan of the Seven Castles killed the last dragon in 1581 after it incinerated five children and a haggis 😁). Actually Black Duncan was real enough, and one of his seven castles was Kilchurn at the foot of the mountain. He built parts of it in between intriguing with Elizabeth I of England over sending Campbell troops to Ireland and unknown dealings with James VI's wife Anne of Denmark for which she sent him a gold jewel and over 30 diamonds. He also deviously expanded the family estates eastwards by engineering a quarrel with the Fletchers of Achallader over grazing rights, his descendants becoming Earls of Breadalbane.


Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe

Kilchurn Castle and Loch Awe


Away from fiery beasts, mythical or human, Cruachan has a classic south-facing horseshoe and a spray of ridges running off its outside arc. You can pick and choose your ridges to make any number of possible loops. The corries in between the ridges have headwalls that are steep but don't provide rock climbing, though there is one enjoyable scramble on a subsidiary spur of Stob Garbh and some winter climbing in the north-eastern corries. Otherwise the ridges are easily the best routes up or down.


Stob Garbh North-East Ridge, Ben Cruachan

Stob Garbh NE Ridge, the scramble mentioned above


I first climbed Cruachan while working in Lochawe village in 1977-78 and took the time to explore some of the nooks and crannies while I was there. The weather could have been better, but then it was midwinter. I've been back half a dozen times since and been lucky on each occasion, so it's given me some great hill days. The most atmospheric was an early October trip when the cloud was almost right down to Loch Awe. It was so low that I had a sneaking feeling that the tops might be clear above it. This turned out to be the case and I had a stunning trip round the main horseshoe, with Brocken Spectres where the cloud sea lapped high enough.


Brocken Spectre, Ben Cruachan

Brocken Spectre on Drochaid Glas


Nearly everybody had been put off by the low cloud and I came across several people who had turned back at the reservoir in the corrie due to the discouraging clag. I only met one person high up, an old guy from the Creagh Dhu who was sitting on the summit taking it all in. I asked him if he was going on round the horseshoe but he said "It couldn't get any better than this so I'm just going to sit here and enjoy it".


Ben Cruachan cloud sea

"It couldn't get any better than this"


I had the opposite experience a few years later on a western loop with Connor and Jackie. The sun was blazing away and it hadn't rained for a week so everything was bone dry. We took the usual route up from the power station and reservoir, keeping close to the streams for as long as we could, and taking advantage of any shade going. From the top we headed westwards to Stob Dearg (Taynuilt Peak), with the drop rightwards providing some drama. The floor of Glen Noe is only 150m and the summit of Cruachan is 1126m so this is one of the longest continuous slopes in the country (although the Allt Garbh does flatten out a little around 350m so it depends what you count as "continuous").


Ben Cruachan

Cruachan summit from Stob Dearg


From Stob Dearg the others headed down the south ridge but I had a minor summit to bag, the north-west top of Meall nan Each. I had been up Meall nan Each before but couldn't remember whether I had been to the minor top (I hadn't). It turned out to be a fun diversion. The descent from Stob Dearg is much rockier than the 1:50,000 map implies, with quite large areas of slab to be descended or inveigled around, while Meall nan Each is a very rocky summit indeed, a maze of tiny lochans, rock slabs and piles of boulders. I just had time to snatch a quick dip in one of the pools of the Allt Gruiniche before catching Con and Jackie. The Allt Gruiniche forms a very impressive gorge here – I investigated it for the scrambles guide but it had far too many stopper falls in it. It's low and close to the sea but if it ever freezes it would be a fantastic ice climb. We finished with a bit of farce, as it was July and the bracken at the foot of the slope was thriving mightily. Even Con was disappearing into it in places, and mostly it was easier to duck down and go caving through the slightly sparser lower fronds. Beer in the shade afterwards was very welcome.


Allt Cruiniche waterfalls, Bridge of Awe

Allt Gruiniche gorge


The most impressive feature of the view from Meall nan Each had been the north ridge of Stob Dearg. This is slabby, especially low down, and makes a good Grade 1 scramble. In fact the steeper slabs on its western flank are rock climbing ground, though it's a long way to carry gear for a few very short routes. Although it's on the north side the remoteness of Glen Noe means that it's best reached from Bridge of Awe. I was going to write "easily reached" but it involves gaining 800m in just over 2km so easy isn't quite the right word! I've done the north ridge a couple of times, once in a snatched evening off while guiding a group nearby, getting to the top for a fantastic sunset over Mull. I came down in the half dark and just got back in time for fish and chips and a pint in Oban – perfect! The other ascent was in new spring snow and had different rewards. The rock slabs were mostly snow-free so you could pad up them, and any slip just meant a brief slide into piles of soft white stuff. I tested this a couple of times. It can be much harder – there's a tale in an old SMC Journal of an icy ascent that went on into the wee small hours.


Stob Dearg, Ben Cruachan

Stob Dearg, North Ridge on the left


The corner of Cruachan that has probably produced the most epics though is Drochaid Glas. Coming along the main ridge from the west, as most do, the summit of Drochaid Glas (a Munro Top) is off to the north a bit so to continue to Stob Daimh (the second Munro) you have to retrace your steps slightly before cutting off down the east flank of the ridge. It's rocky so there isn't a path and in mist the route isn't obvious – it feels more natural to carry straight on along the ridgeline. In days of yore the situation was made worse by WA Poucher's guidebook, which showed the route as continuing down the north ridge then flying across the corrie to meet the north-east ridge of Stob Daimh. If you looked carefully you could see the proper route in his picture but Poucher did his book from memory, so the lines on his photographs sometimes did strange things. This was one of the most notorious – I've met three people who have made unplanned descents to Glen Noe as a result, and I gather there have been plenty more. It still happens today even without the guidebook error.


Drochaid Glas, Ben Cruachan

Drochaid Glas


My own most memorable skirmish with the top end of Glen Noe was while at Lochawe, when I came round over the Lairig Noe with the idea of climbing one of the snow gullies in in Coire Lochain. There weren't any routes recorded but it felt like there ought to be some. The weather deteriorated markedly as I went up into the corrie and by the time I got to the lochan it was a full on blizzard. I couldn't see to explore, in fact I could barely see to walk (I didn't have goggles then). It was only going to be worse higher up so I headed back the way I came. The traverse across the top of the rock slabs below the corrie had become 'interesting' in the meantime. My footprints were long filled in and once below the slabs it was impossible to judge how high up the slope I was, so I was glad to come across the power station road, even though it meant I was lower down than I wanted to be. This bizarre feature is part of the pumped storage hydro scheme and comes out of a hole in the mountainside to stop at a random point in the middle of nowhere. At least I now knew exactly where I was. Slogging up deep snow directly into the wind over the Lairig Noe wasn't fun, and the Castles Farm track was very welcome.


Coire an Lochain, Stob Daimh, Ben Cruachan

Coire an Lochain - I was aiming for the gully at the RH edge of the pic


Huge amounts of snow came down overnight and the next day it took me most of the daylight to wade up Stob Garbh. I intended to climb the North-East Ridge, an obvious but then undescribed buttress that later turned up in Noel Williams's Scrambles in Lochaber, but the depth of snow made it unfeasible to even reach the bottom of it. I did the east ridge instead, which the wind had cleared a little. It was over 30 years before I finally got to do the North-East Ridge. The bottom part is spoiled a little because the choices are either too hard or too easy, but the positions on the top ridge are excellent. It's better in winter because steep snow beats steep grass and the top ridge then feels properly alpine.


Stob Garbh, Ben Cruachan

Stob Garbh NE Ridge


I've had a few other snowy days on the massif too, including a trip across the Lairig Torran north of Meall a' Bhuiridh where it was waist deep in places. On the way down I got a shock when my boot emerged from one of the deep postholes with the sole still sitting in the bottom of the hole 😯. I tied it back on with a spare bootlace and it got me down the hill without having to go barefoot, but the boots were a write off. As I had only one day left and hadn't been up Cruachan yet I ended up doing a winter traverse of the main ridge wearing flat-soled leather town shoes. Not something I would recommend but I got away with it. The steep slope above the Cuanail col was quite icy and even with a lot of zigzagging about to use the rock as much as possible I had to cut steps in places. The slabby section on the descent eastwards from the main peak was also well coated in ice and felt very precarious. An ahead-of-its-time bit of ice axe torquing came into play at one point. I suspect walking boots wouldn't have been much better though and I really needed crampons.


The bad step, Ben Cruachan

The slabby section on a rather different day!


Beyond that the snow got softer and the ups and downs on the ridge aren't steep so other than wet cold feet I had no difficulties. The steep section at the foot of the east ridge of Sron an Isean would have been nasty if it had still had snow on the steep grass but by then it had warmed up and I was below the snowline. A cautious mixture of sidestepping and use of my backside took me down safely enough. Then it was back to the hotel to pick up my kit and a plod along the back road to catch the evening train to Edinburgh.


Ben Cruachan from Beinn a' Chochuill

Cruachan main ridge from Beinn a' Chochuill


The article on the North Ridge of Stob Dearg is in SMCJ vol II, by W Douglas


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