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There are five Munros which are normally climbed from Glen Etive and at this point I hadn't climbed any of them. What's more, Ruth still had two of them to do, the closest Munros to Edinburgh that she still hadn't done. So we set off at 7 in the morning under cloudy skies but confident of a sunny day ahead and drove up to Glen Etive. We were held up at one point behind a Highway Maintenance truck, and then at roadworks on the Ba Bridge, but managed to get to the bottom of Glen Etive in about 2 hours 40 minutes. The road down Glen Etive incidentally could have benefitted from plenty of Highway Maintenance itself, but further down it looked like it had all been resurfaced not too long ago. There were quite a few cars already at the starting point but we managed to squeeze in nearby and were off walking by ten o'clock.
Our plan was to do the round of Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhor, both of which Ruth had already climbed, but also to include the lengthy detour to climb Beinn nan Aighenan in between the two others, which she hadn't. The Cicerone guide, which we had both found to be fairly accurate in the past, estimates the time for this walk to be 7 hours 50 minutes not including stops, so we reckoned we might be round in 9 hours. This would make a return to the car around 7pm, leaving time to get back to Edinburgh at a civilized hour. So much for the theory...
We headed down the track, over the bridge that crosses the River Etive and past the house at Coileitir, wondering if the high padlocked gate that we had to climb over was meant to be hinting at an alternative route for walkers. We couldn't see anything obvious however, and the two bods we'd passed at the house hadn't said anything to us, so we continued cheerfully along the path by the river.
Not far along we reached the Allt Mheuran, the stream that flows down from below the Munros we were aiming to climb. We crossed it by the bridge and then continued along the path on its west bank until we reached the start of Ben Starav's long northern ridge. As we'd hoped, the weather was beautiful, if rather hazy, and cameras were out in force.
Waterfall on the Allt Mheuran
As we started to climb we began to get a better view of the River Etive and of course the loch, which was not far away. In the car we'd been debating whether Loch Etive is a sea loch or not. In fact it is, although it is 20 miles from the head of the loch where we were to Connel Bridge where it opens into the sea, and it is never more than a mile wide at any point. On the far side of Glen Etive we could also now see two more Munros, Beinn Fhionnlaidh and Sgor na h-Ulaidh, of which we had hazy views for most of the day.
Now we were into the long relentless ascent from near sea level (I knew there was some reason why it was important to us whether Loch Etive was a sea loch!) to the summit of Ben Starav at 1078m. I didn't think I was very fit and wondered how I would cope with this. I fully expected to be trailing behind my sister all the way up. However, once again Ruth had been giving blood only 3 days earlier which probably explains why it was actually her who was trailing behind for most of the way up this gruelling climb.
As we climbed we could get a better view of the main route of the walk - up the north ridge of Ben Starav, then round the ridge over Stob Coire Dheirg, Ben Starav's eastern top and continuing round to Glas Bheinn Mhor, visible in this picture still looking discouragingly high above us. What we couldn't yet see of course was Beinn nan Aighenan which lies behind this main ridge. The glen on the left would be our route back to the car in the evening.
View back to the Allt Mheuran
Looking up the north ridge of Ben Starav
We were also getting a view of sorts back up Glen Etive and on a clear day we'd have had a wonderful view of the hills on the south side of Glen Coe. Today however they were barely visible in the haze. It also seemed quite humid and there was very little wind on this side of the main ridge so we soon got very sweaty.
A flat section on the ridge
I hadn't been expecting a particularly hot and sweaty day and I had rashly come with only a litre of liquid to drink. This was now dwindling fast so it was a great relief to get our first clear view of the summit ridge of Ben Starav which was still sporting a generous mantle of snow on its northern flank. I was pretty sure I would need to fill up my bottles with snow when we got there.
The summit coming closer
The path is very clear all the way up this ridge so even in poor visibility there wouldn't be much difficulty with route-finding. When Ruth had climbed it with a party the last time they had been in cloud on the higher part of the ridge, so she was particularly glad of the relatively clear views we were getting today.
I wasn't aware at the time, but Glen Etive was the scene of some filming for the final Harry Potter movie (Deathly Hallows) in April 2009. Various other shoots for the previous films were also made nearby in Glen Coe and near the top of Glen Etive. All this of course at the insistence of J K Rowling, who obviously likes the West Highlands. I don't think she's a Munro bagger, but you never know...
As we started into the final pull to the summit the thought of getting there gave me an extra boost and I pushed on ahead, thinking it was only a few minutes away. In fact it took longer than I had imagined so I ended up feeling a bit guilty about abandoning Ruth to slog it out on her own. The snow patches were also drawing me on, since I now had only enough water left to help to melt the snow.
On the way up we'd met Alan from Dundee who was planning to do the same three Munros that we were. He was also finding the initial ascent a hard slog, but he got to the summit shortly after we did, in nice time for us to exchange cameras for the obligatory summit photos. We sat there for a while chatting and I nipped down to the nearest snow patch to fill up our water supplies.
360° video from the summit
It was very pleasant sitting in the sun with nothing but a slight breeze blowing, but we did of course have a lot more to do. So we dragged ourselves away and headed off down the ridge above the snow patches, getting some of the most spectacular views of the day as we looked back to the summit.
By this time we had a clear view of our next objective, Beinn nan Aighenan, affectionately known, according to Ruth, as Beinn nan Agony. Now that we could see just how much of a detour it involved I could certainly sympathize with this. On the plus side it isn't as high as Ben Starav, being only 957m, and on such a clear day we had no worries about route-finding, which guidebooks tend to warn about in poor visibility.
Now we came to one of the most interesting parts of the walk where the ridge narrows to a short rocky aręte. We could see a well-worn path below the crest to the right which I suppose might be preferable in poor weather conditions, but today we had great fun scrambling along the top.
Looking back to the summit ridge
Next stop was Stob Coire Dheirg (1068m), the highest of Ben Starav's three subsidiary Tops and the only one we were going to be taking in. From here the rest of the main ridge could be clearly seen with Glas Bheinn Mhor in the distance and the minor bump of Meall nan Tri Tighearnan (892m) half way along. In this photo you can also see the col now directly below us, and the start of the path leading off to the right towards Beinn nan Aighenan.
At the col it was, in theory, decision time. Were we going to continue with the plan to take in Beinn nan Aighenan despite feeling somewhat knackered and being already well behind schedule? Since it was going to be the only new Munro of the day for Ruth we didn't spend long discussing the issue. We'd already seen Alan heading off to do it and the path seemed pretty clear at least at its start, so we took the plunge, if that isn't too dramatic a word for the 150m of descent that we first had to make to the bealach.
There is in fact a reasonably clear path for most of the way over to Beinn nan Aighenan, winding its way between lots of picturesque lochans and pools as it crosses the bealach. We were therefore held up mostly by all the photo opportunities that kept presenting themselves along the way.
Looking back to Ben Starav
It must have been at least half past four by the time we reached the summit of Beinn nan Aighenan, and the idea of being back at the car by seven had now dissolved into the realms of fantasy. However we had no particular need to be back in Edinburgh for a particular time, so we weren't too worried about this. Ruth had left her pack at the start of the ascent from the bealach in order to conserve a little energy for the remainder of the day. For some reason I failed to take any summit photos on this Munro, but this one was taken not long after we set off back towards the main ridge.
As mentioned, Ben Starav has three subsidiary Tops, one of which lies on the main ridge and pretty much has to be climbed on the usual route. The other two, Meall Cruidh (930m) and Stob an Duine Ruaidh (918m) lie quite close together on a long ridge that extends southwards from the summit before curving round to the west and dropping to the shores of Loch Etive. The best views of this ridge are from Beinn nan Aighenan and in this photo you can see the pointy peak of Stob an Duine Ruaidh, with the rounder shape of Meall Cruidh to its right.
The view of Glas Bheinn Mhor that you get as you make the return journey from Beinn nan Aighenan has good news and bad news. The good news is that there doesn't appear to be much in the way of arduous ascent left in store for those who are planning to do all three Munros in the day. The bad news is that it still looks like an awfully long walk, especially when you consider how far you'll still be from the car even when you reach the summit. I have to confess that I was considering the option of heading straight back to the car from the col without doing this third Munro, which Ruth after all had already done.
For the record, I had once again filled my water bottles from a snow patch near the summit of Beinn nan Aighenan - even two litres of water had turned out to be pretty inadequate for such a long day.
We had tried in vain to spot a shortcut that would take us back onto the main ridge further along than where we'd left it. It would no doubt be possible to find a route yourself, but the slopes are pretty craggy and we reckoned it was much easier just to follow the path back to the col. Once there we met up with Alan again and had to decide if we were up for Number Three or not. Ruth and I decided we could make it and after a short rest we headed off up the first part of the ascent. We left Alan still weighing it up, but a few minutes later we saw that he had made the same decision as us and was following not far behind.
It had clouded over a bit during the course of the day but we were still getting sunny spells and plenty of views. Ben Starav looked particularly good in the evening light with the sun gradually setting behind it.
The route to the summit of Glas Bheinn Mhor is a very pleasant ridge walk and although it dips quite a bit before the final ascent it didn't seem too hard compared with the first two ascents of the day. The path is clear the whole way along the ridge, which always makes walking more pleasant and stress-free. Incidentally Meall nan tri Tighearnan, seen in this photo, is only 892m and therefore isn't a Munro Top - sad since it would be another really easy one to snap up!
Looking over to Beinn nan Aighenan
Finally we arrived at the summit of Glas Bheinn Mhor at about seven o'clock in the evening. I carefully arranged my "Three Munros Hairdo" for this summit photo, but what had happened to my sunny smile? Those face muscles just didn't seem to have any energy left in them!
Evening light over Ben Starav
The north face of Glas Bheinn Mhor is uniformly steep and craggy and the only sensible way to get off it is to continue along the ridge for about 1km where there is a fairly steep descent to a col - more bad news for tired legs that would much prefer to be heading back to the car in a more direct line at this point in the day. The glen that we were heading for gradually came into view and we could see traces of a path which gave me hopes of a fairly rapid stomp back down to sea level.
Looking back to Glas Bheinn Mhor
The descent to the col was certainly pretty steep, and by this stage I was worried that my knees would start to give up on me. They were definitely registering some complaints as I made my way down, but as always I had my bouncy stick with me to protect them from the worst effects.
We now began the long descent down the glen. It is over 5km back to the road and none of it can be done all that quickly. The path is steep to begin with and remains fairly rough for most of the way down. Lower down it started to turn boggy as well. Nevertheless we kept up a fairly good pace with not many stops, realizing that if we didn't hurry we would be doing the last part in the dark - it was now about quarter to eight.
It was nice to get back to fast-flowing water again and be able to drink something other than melted snow, which inevitably always tastes slightly odd and usually has an assortment of foreign bodies floating in it.
Evening light over Ben Starav again
As you can see from this photo, Ruth was still managing her sunny smile even at this late and exhausted hour of the day. Our legs really were complaining by this stage, and the road didn't seem to be coming much closer as we stumbled on down the path.
On the way up the ridge in the morning we had seen what looked like some paths cutting across from the bridge on the Allt Mheuran over to Coileitir and had thought they might provide a shortcut. We attempted to find one of them after we got close to the bridge, but although we found some half-hearted sort of paths none of them seemed very well-established. It no doubt saved a bit of time though cutting off this corner of the main path. By the time we finally came across the bridge at Coileitir and staggered up the track to the road it really was getting dark. Alan had arrived back slightly ahead of us and was just driving off as we got to the road. He waited to have a quick chat - we all agreed that the Cicerone guide's "7 hours 50 minutes" had been extremely misleading. It was now 9.30 which meant that we had taken eleven and a half hours to get round. It was great to get back to the car, but we still had the two and a half hour drive back to Edinburgh. For me it all seemed worth it for three more Munros, taking me to 189 - Ruth of course had clocked up just one new Munro, but it had been a great day out and worth all the effort in the end.