An overnight backpacking trip taking in the five Munros of the Ben Starav group in the West Highlands of Scotland
Saturday 28th June
Victoria Bridge to Wild Camp on Ben Starav (NN 126 425)
Hills: Beinn nan Aighenan (Munro: 933m), Ben Starav (Munro: 1,078m)
Route: View on OS Maps
I pulled out of Tyndrum, rounding the sharp left hand bend in the road that climbs up into a narrow glen where the road, the railway and the West Highland Way all squeeze together. I noticed the Caledonian Sleeper pulling up the grade just beside me. Sadly all 3,200bhp of the Class 67 hauling it weren’t a match for the 74bhp of my Fiesta, zipping along with just me and my lightweight camping pack. An early getaway from Aberdeen had brought with it the reward of mostly quiet roads and I tootled past the waking campers, stretching and blinking in the bright morning sun, on the flats near the Inveroran Hotel just after 8am.
The car park at Victoria Bridge was empty apart from a couple of other early arrivals and the obligatory sleepy campervan. The presence, in this shady, sheltered spot below the pines, of a few midgies meant no-one was hanging around for a chat.
After a hurried croissant, the final dregs of a service station coffee and a final bag check I myself was off, walking past the buildings at Forest Lodge and then slowing down a bit as I escaped the midges and reached the open glen alongside the Abhainn Shira. Quite clearly it has been dry over on the west in recent weeks and the river levels were low. Ahead of me was a glorious panorama of hills, several of which were on my high level route planned to fill the next couple of days.
For now, under a warm sun, it was an easy walk down the glen, following the broad vehicle track. The weather was perfect and I made good progress. As the track bent away from the river towards the house at Clashgour a sign pointed me onto a delightful stretch of narrow footpath that closely followed the river bank.
This was much easier on the feet and provided plenty of occasions to stop and enjoy nature. Large dragonflies chuck-chucked out of the long grass ahead of me. A fish jumping rippled the lazy almost dead still river. Birds flitted through the tussocks and heather. It was a wonderful detox after a week in the city.
At the Allt Clashgour a sign informed me of the missing bridge. With low water levels though it was easy to cross on dry rocks and then there was a choice - footpath or vehicle track. I chose the former which turned into a boggy tramp through a plantation until I dropped down towards the bouncy bridge across the Abhainn Shira. Here I stopped for a quick chat to a guy who had spent two nights camped by Loch Dochard, bagging the surrounding peaks.
Loch Dochard itself was my next stop, reached by a landrover track which paralleled the river as it tumbled down from the body of water in a series of pleasant falls. A shower passed along the far side of the glen and over Stob Ghabhar, shrouding its dark flanks. I hardly got wet at all but was treated to a stunning rainbow sitting low beyond the next rise in the glen.
The idyllic waters of Loch Dochard came into view and I dropped down from the track for a sit by the shore. A couple of folk were cleaning pots and packing up their tent a little further round the shoreline. The panorama of peaks was spectacular and I sat taking it all in whilst fending off the annoyances of some pesky black flies.
My amble up the glen continued after the break. The skies grew a bit gloomier as I crossed the watershed, approaching the impressively steep flanks of Beinn nan Aighenan with the infant waters of the Kinglass beginning to co-mingle. The lonely Lochan na h-Iuraiche looked very appealing below the dark crags of Meall nan Eun, a quiet spot away from the crowds at Loch Dochard.
I crossed the feeders into the Kinglass which were again shallow and picked up the track that runs down the north bank of the river under the slopes of Beinn nan Aighenan. I’d considered this as a possible ascent route but had decided to head up besides the Allt Hallater, further to the west, which looked like it might offer a more accessible slope and an easier route to the top of the hill.
This meant walking further down Glen Kinglass which was very pleasant. I had a break by the long section of falls which were a little unspectacular with the low water levels and then pushed on, passing the farm at Glen Kinglass House and then dropping down to where the Allt Hallater came in from the slopes below Beinn na Luss.
I searched around for the start of the path marked on the OS map but came up short, finding only lumpy ground and bracken growing high on the sunny side of the glen. I fought my way up through this a short distance away from the bank of the stream, eventually emerging higher up where I stumbled, annoyingly, on the path. Looking back I could see its vague course uphill and to the left of the bracken. Ho hum.
I followed the path for a brief way before leaving it to cross boggy ground up to the steep slope that climbs besides the Eas an Eich Bhain. The path itself continues up into Coire Hallater and would, with hindsight, probably offer the best way to climb this steep sided mountain. Instead I carefully picked my way up the incredibly steep slope, sticking where possible to terraced grass and winding my way around crags and rocks. The slope was steep and didn’t ease for a good four or five hundred metres with Glen Kinglass opening up below my feet and the views across Ben Luss to Ben Cruachan improving rapidly with each step upward.
Eventually, thankfully, the crazy slope eased and I emerged into a jumbled land of rock and pools and grass that sits to the south of the the main summit. Although not quite as striaght forward as on the map I was able to pick my way around to the south ridge and followed this up to the summit.
From the patchy sunshine of Glen Kinglass I’d been plunged into a brooding and overcast day. Cloud was now wreathing Ben Starav although it seemed like the lower summits were avoiding the worst of it. Below me the silver surface of Loch Etive wound its way around towards the sea somewhere in the distance.
As I emerged at the summit cairn a drizzle started. It wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits though which had been lifted by obtaining this first summit of the trip. Shortly after I arrived a chap and his dog also made it to the top and we both sat either side of the cairn munching on our sandwiches whilst we watched the weather.
With rain falling and the views closing in I thought it sensible to make a move, now picking up the very clear track that heads down towards the bealach separating Beinn nan Aighenan from the main Ben Starav group.
Although I started with my hood down the rain soon fizzled out and things improved slightly as the cloud started clearing from Ben Starav itself. With a good track it was a relatively easy descent though I was caught by the chap from the summit who hopped his way down the steeper sections. We proceeded to chat over the rest of the descent and it was only when the track rose up from the bealach that I left him behind again.
The track climbed easily up to the bealach between the east top of Ben Starav and the ridge leading along to Glas Bheinn Mhor. With the prospects of a view from Ben Starav now looking much more likely I turned left and started to work my way up its eastern ridge. To the north now I had a view down to Glen Etive and across to the hills that border Glencoe. There were patches of sunlight appearing and the day looked promising once again.
The initial climb from the bealach was easy enough and I soon had views back across to Beinn nan Aighenan and east along the chain of hills that would be my route back towards the car eventually. The slope narrowed to a ridge which took me high above the shattered northern slopes of Ben Starav's eastern top which featured some interesting geology.
The east top was rocky but enjoyed views along the narrowest section of the ridge and up towards the summit itself. I watched a couple of people bypass the pinnacles before setting off myself to see what the ridge was like.
I tackled the first pinnacle but took the bypass path for the remainder, my scrambling feeling a little rusty. The narrow ridge climbed up and it was a very eroded path that got my finally up to the summit plateau of Ben Starav.
From here it was an easy stroll under a brightening sky around the rim of the mountain's north-eastern coire to reach the rocky summit where I put my pack down and took in the magnificent panorama.
Away to the south stretched Loch Etive with the distinctive notched peaks of the Ben Cruachan range in the distance. Out beyond Loch Linnhe stood Mull, given away by the distinctive sight of Ben More.
In the east sunlight was catching the hills above the Bridge of Orchy whilst dark clouds still hung over the Black Mount as the clouds and showers of the afternoon moved off.
I spent a good half an hour or so just sitting on the summit, watching as the light changed and the day warmed up again. Eventually I checked the time and was surprised to find it was already late in the afternoon. I looked back east, picking out the rise and fall in the hills and wandering how much further it would be until I got to a decent camping spot. I was doubtful any spot could rival the view I was currently enjoying from Ben Starav and despite my initial plan to camp further east, possibly beyond the next Munro, I pretty soon came to a decision that I would be camping up here.
On the way across the plateau to the summit I'd notcied a fine grassy bowl and so I headed down to see whether it would suit. It was pretty obvious on inspection that it was an excellent spot, with grand views, nearby water (though not running) and a soft, grassy pitch.
I enjoyed a thoroughly perfect evening, brewing up for a cuppa and lounging about in the sunshine with views down to Loch Etive and along to Ben Cruachan. I reflected on the fact that I had camped just on the shoulder of that fine range of hills twelve months previous.
After a cuppa and then soup, a bit more relaxing and it was time for some dinner. This was my first time trying out one of the meals from Mountain Trails who I'd found after a couple of people mentioned using them on the TGO Challenge this year. I went for the minced beef and mashed potato which comes in two separate pouches. I was slightly skeptical of this approach, and though it turned out the meal did require a lot of boiling water (just about 600ml) it was very tasty and had the texture of perfectly normal food. It was a filling dinner and overall I was impressed with the quality of the meal despite the additional waste packaging/
After dinner I decided to head back up to the summit and have a general wander about the mountain. I was half thinking I might head out to the southern tops as these looked to be interesting spurs with long ridge lines heading down towards Loch Etive. However, after looking at the sunlit Glencoe hills and clambering back up to the summit itself I spotted that a second tent had appeared on the hill. I thought it would be slightly rude not to say hello so popped over to where they were.
They were a pair from Edinburgh who’d camped close to the summit of Stob Ghabhar the previous night and made their way along the range of hills to Ben Starav during the day. They were having some interesting problems with their liquid fuelled stove which caused some scary moments considering how close the tent fabric was to the naked flames. Eventually they got it going and started to cook up a tasty looking pasta dinner with lots of fresh ingredients. We chatted away about the pleasures of summit camping and then, as they were about to have dinner, agreed to meet up on the summit to watch the sunset, still a couple of hours away.
As I wandered back towards my tent I noticed a beautiful rainbow had appeared over the hills towards Stob Ghabhar, stretching between dramatic clouds and the dark hills.
Back outside the tent I grabbed my phone and headphones and found a comfortable set of boulders to recline back against and listened to music as I watched the evening light flow over Loch Etive and the surrounding hills. It was sublime.
About 9:30 I put on an extra warm layer, made myself a cup of hot chocolate and headed up towards the summit for a view of sunset. My neighbours from the other tent joined me a few moments later and we stood and sat around the summit cairn watching as the most beautiful, subtle sunset unfolded out in the west towards Mull and Jura. It had that fiery intensity you only really get on the west coast but it was the more pastel shades that stretched out on either side that really took your breath away.
The sun eventually dipped somewhere beyond the hills of Jura and the temperature, already low, rapidly dropped. The show was over and it was time to head back down to cosy sleeping bags.
The colour faded from the sky rapidly and by the time I was back at the tent it was a rather grey world. The prospects of noctilucent clouds seemed slim and indeed by the time I was zipped up in my sleeping bag, my wooly hat on, there was a pattering of rain on the tent. After a couple of chapters of my book I drifted off to sleep...
Sunday 29th June
Wild Camp on Ben Starav to Victoria Bridge
Distance: 25.1km (Cumulative: 48.9km)
Elevation: 1,430m (Cumulative: 2,980m)
Hills: Glas Bheinn Mhor (Munro), Stob Coir' an Albainnaich (Munro), Meall nan Eun (Munro), Stob Ghabhar (Munro)
After checking the time of sunrise the previous evening I’d set my alarm for a few minutes before it and woke to a cold but mostly cloudless pre-dawn. All my layers went back on and I stepped out into the world. Cloud hung around the peaks further east and north but above me it was almost completely clear.
I made my way slowly and stiffly up to the lip of the north eastern coire, just in time to watch the sun crest the distant hills. The light was fantastic and as the first light of dawn lit up Ben Starav I clambered up the path to the summit cairn.
The sunrise equalled the sunset of the previous evening, this time a little bit more special for having it all to myself. I watched in wonder as the light spread across the hilltops, the shadow of Ben Starav stretching out over Loch Etive.
After enjoying the show for a good twenty or so minutes the best part was over and I headed back down to the tent to get back into my lovely warm sleeping bag and another couple of hours of sleep.
I eventually woke up around 7:30 as the heat in the tent began to build. It felt good to get up and get a coffee on, munching away on a breakfast bar as steam rose in great plumes from the stove.
By 8:30 I was packed up and set off eastward, stopping by the pool to refresh my water supply and say goodbye to my fellow campers who were just starting breakfast.
I set off to the start of the east ridge, retreading the route I had taken to get up Ben Starav the previous afternoon. The views along the range of hills were superb as light and shadow played over them and the glen far below. The scrabbly eroded descent woke up whatever the coffee had missed and I was soon at the start of the narrow section.
The ridge was a delight in the morning sunshine and I kept to the crest for most of its length, only using the bypass path to skip one awkwardly angled pinnacle near the eastern top. I paused often to revel in the solitude and splendour of this spot.
From the east top there were excellent views back along the ridge and over to Ben Cruachan. The long north ridge of Ben Starav, the route typically climbed if coming up from Glen Etive, was perfectly illuminated by the morning sun. Soon I was making my way down the rocky path, past the fractures, intrusions and pinnacles and looking forward to the first new Munro of the day.
The weather had changed a little as I descended the slopes back to the bealach from which I had started the climb the previous afternoon. Cloud had moved in and now the skies were grey and looking a little moody.
From the bealach I started the easy ascent of Meall nan Tri Tighearnan and was soon enjoying the views back up to Ben Starav and along the undulating ridge which led the eye eastward.
From this minor top there were good views down Corie nan Camh owards Loch Dochard and the Bridge of Orchy hills, as well as across to Beinn nan Aighenan which I had climbed the previous day.
I continued on, dropping down to the next bealach and then making the rather gentle ascent of Glas Bheinn Mhor, the next Munro along the ridge.
As I reached the summit cairn the grey cloud started to break and once again I was in sunshine.
There were now clear views north beyond Glencoe to the Mamores and Ben Nevis, a seemingly endless stretch of mountains fading out into darker skies to the northwest.
From here it was a clear track down the east ridge of Glas Bheinn Mhor, heading for the next low bealach.
This is truly delightful walking country, the narrow ridges giving a feeling of loftiness, but the terrain easy and the way always clear. I particularly enjoyed looking down the length of the glen which I had walked up the previous morning, ticking off features and landmarks as I passed them from above.
The path dropped quickly down to the bealach with a couple of rocky sections to negotiate before I was down and glad to find a tinkling stream just below the high point of the col. I took the opportunity to refill my water bottle and take a long, thirst quenching drink. The only problem with the dry weather was how dry the ridge and bealachs themselves were. This was the first accessible running water I'd seen since leaving Glen Kinglass the day before.
The climb up from the bealach to Stob Coir’an Albannaich was short but steep, bringing me out onto a verdant, grassy sloping plateau with the main summit still a little way to the east. Rather than tackle the side of this direct I followed the plateau north up the easy slope to where the mountain’s west ridge led me up towards the top.
Emerging on the summit plateau which encircles the grand northeastern coire I decided first to go to the western end to catch the excellent views down towards Glen Etive.
After this brief diversion I made my way back along the summit ridge to the main summit passing some equisitie displays of high mountain wildflowers in full blooom.
The summit is an airy perch, a grassy cairn offering a comfortable spot to admire the big views from this lofty summit.
I had a snack and, looking to the east, was glad to see that Stob Ghabhar was now looking a little closer. Before reaching it though I still had one final new Munro to cross and a fairly hefty reascent to get up onto the final ridge.
The descent from Albannaich was initially steep and narrow down a well defined ridge. Eventually though the slope eased and the ridge broadened. The cairn marking the point of descent is well documented online and in guides and I found it without problem, following a faint track down a steep sloping gully towards the bealach below. I lost the track lower down but emerged unscathed.
The jumbled bealach offered some fine views up the dramatic, stony northeast side of Albannaich. It was a very different landscape to the grassy ridges which I had been traversing up until now. A few pools hidden amongst the rocks showed the potential this area has for wild camping.
From the rocky bealach a faint trail led me up the gentle slopes of Meall Tarsuinn where I met the first other person of the day, coming in the opposite direction. They were on a decent hike, heading for Ben Starav and then on to Cruachan before catching the train back to Glasgow. The summit of Meall Tarsuinn came quickly and there were splendid views back to the twin-summited Stob Coir' an Albannaich with the sun coming back out over the Glencoe hills.
The far side of Meall Tarsuinn was more jumbled rock and boulders but I was soon at the bealach and beginning the climb up to Meall na Eun, the third Munro of the morning.
Soon enough I was up the easy angled slopes on a good path and at the Munro summit, a large, flat and mostly featureless plateau with Stob Ghabhar looming in the background.
After a pleasant lunch and aware that time was marching on with at least one more big ascent to tackle I was soon off, heading west along the plateau to pick out the vague northwest ridge which would lead me down to the final bealach of the trip. The descent was steep and slithery on grass slopes interspersed by boulders and crags. Routefinding was a challenge and I had to backtrack or traverse on a couple of occassions to find a secure way down. Eventually I scrambled down a slithery rock gully and emerged at the bealach with the huge wall of Meall Odhar ahead of me.
Crossing the bealach brought me under these steep slopes. In his report of these hills Mark Horrel says of this particular hillside
It was one of those slopes you look back at and wonder how you got down. You certainly wouldn’t be tempted to climb up it if you were coming the other way.
Well here I was, and if I wanted to get to Stob Ghabhar I would be going up it.
It was a bit of a calf-screaming ascent, but not really any worse than that pull out of Glen Kinglass the day before. In fact the footing was securer and the ascent seemed to be shorter and soon enough I had grandstand views back across the bealach towards Albannaich and over to Meall nan Eun, its slopes now looking impossibly steep and craggy.
I was now up on the final ridge that would lead me towards Stob Ghabhar. A small cairn marked the summit of Meall Odhar which enjoyed fine views east towards the Black Mount and into Glencoe.
The long ridge which extends over a couple of subsidiary tops before climbing up to the summit of Stob Ghabhar is a joy, delightful high level walking on mostly dry ground with stunning views in all directions. With the last big ascent done I was able to make good progress and delighted in stretching my legs on this section.
I covered ground quickly and was soon looking past the craggy eastern end of Meall nan Eun down to Loch Dochard which I’d been sitting besides just the previous morning.
Ahead of me the ridge stretched away, rising to the first minor top of Stob a'Bhruaich Leith which had grand views across to Glencoe and back to Meall nan Eun and Stob Coir’ an Albainnaich beyond.
The route now curved around the high cliffs of Coire Laoghan with views across to the long ridges which mark the hills between here and the Black Mount proper.
After crossing the Munro top of Sron a'Ghearrain the final slopes up to Stob Ghabhar were revealed. Rather than make my way directly up their western side I elected to traverse around to the north and pick up the track I knew came down from the summit. This should offer views into the Coire Lochain and make the final ascent a bit easier.
I worked my way around the head of Coire a’ Chaolain with views down to Clashgour and the woods near the Abhainn Shira and then climbed up to the col below Stob Ghabhar.
The views from here were spectacular with the drama of Coire Lochain below my feet leading the eye out towards the watery expanse of Rannoch Moor. Above me and not far away now was the final summit of the trip.
A path, taken by those undertaking the Clachlet Traverse, took me easily up the final bouldery section to the rocky summit of Stob Ghabhar.
I was surprised to find I had this popular summit to myself. It was late afternoon though and I sat in the peaceful sunlight eating a final snack and looking back along the sweeping crest of peaks that I had traversed since leaving Ben Starav a few hours earlier. I could glimpse into upper Glen Kinglass and follow the line of my outward route from Loch Tulla all the way to Glenkinglass House.
Loch Tulla shone in the afternoon sunlight with the Bridge of Orchy hills picked out nicely, clouds drifting lazily about.
Rannoch Moor dominated the view northeastwards, and to the northwest the eye was led across countless mountain peaks to the broad back of Ben Nevis.
Westward were the shapely peaks of Ben Cruachan and Ben Starav, a shimmering line marking the sea separating them.
I took one last look about, peered into the dark waters of Coire Lochain and then made my way off the top, following the clear baggers track heading for the start of the Aonach Eagach ridge.
The ridge wasn’t my destination today though, having already traversed it in winter conditions I was quite content to drop off from the heights and start the long ascent downward.
As I descended something caught in my peripheral vision and I stopped to watch as a paraglider climbed in tight circles on a handy thermal. They then glided off beyond Stob a' Choire Odhair.
The impressive eastern face of Stob Ghabhar caught my attention before I turned away from the ridge and started the descent.
The path is easy to follow but steep at times and requires concentration as the surface is loose and slippy with the occassional sunken rock waiting to trip you up. It was hard to concentrate though as the light shifted in the glen and everything started to illuminate wonderfully.
Soon enough I was on a more grassy section, making good progress and starting to catch a group ahead of me. The views over Loch Tulla to the Bridge of Orchy Munros led me onward.
Soon I was past a delightful waterfall and then making my way down the very steep section below Creag an Steallaire.
The Allt Toaig (with some modern additions) was reached and crossed easily and then it was a straightforward march back down to the Abhainn Shira and my outward route.
Near the mountain hut I caught up with the group ahead of me. They had enjoyed a grand day out on Stob Ghabhar and seemed impressed with the fact I had come along from Ben Starav. We had a good chat as we walked down to the river.
At the hut (with its respectful signage) I left them to a gentle meander back and put on some speed, covering the short mile back to the car quickly. The light was beautiful and it was a shame to have to leave behind these wonderful hills that had been my playground for the weekend. Nevertheless I was quickly changed and rehydrated myself aware of the fairly long drive back to Aberdeen that now awaited me.
With the sun shining I rolled the windows down and turned the music up, enjoying the rollercoaster ride back along the single track to the Bridge of Orchy and then along to Tyndrum. Though I was mighty envious of those supping pints outside the Inveroran and Bridge of Orchy hotels all such feelings evaporated as I tucked, a few minutes later, into a mighty fine fish supper sitting outside in the sunshine at the Real Food Cafe. I’m not sure this trip could have really gone any better.
My thanks go to the following three folk, for posting inspirational trip reports that, when combined, formed the basis of my two day route: