Camping high on Ben Starav

High level camping is an experience unlike any other. Imagine savouring a fiery red sun setting over the mountains, another day smouldering to a close. As you drift off to sleep, nestling safely in the protective arms of a high coire, there’s the prospect of awakening to a gloriously crisp dawn, pink skies dissolving into the bright blue tones of a fresh morning, all viewed through your tent door from the comfort of a cosy sleeping bag.

Pitching at altitude is the ideal way to live and breathe the hills, a world away from the distractions of life in the valleys below. It’s also a great opportunity to bag more peaks without having to repeatedly hike up from the bottom.

The five Munros of Meall nan Eun, Stob Coir’ an Albannaich, Glas Bheinn Mhor, Beinn nan Aighenan and Ben Starav are strung out in a snaking line above Glen Etive, one of Scotland’s most scenic valleys. The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s Munros guidebook suggests splitting the five into two separate routes, the first covering Glas Bheinn Mhor, Ben Starav and out-lying Beinn nan Aighenan, and the second encompassing Meall nan Eun and Stob Coir’ an Albannaich.

The only downside to this strategy is that having conquered the first three, you must begin again from the base of the glen to bag the other two. We decided instead to chalk off all five in one expedition, saving ourselves a substantial amount of re-ascent. It was the perfect opportunity for a high-level camp. A quick scan of the map revealed plenty of sheltered potential pitches in the high coires and cols separating the peaks on this gloriously rugged and remote ridge.

After selecting and carefully packing our lightest of lightweight gear, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the climbers’ bar of the famous Kings House Hotel in Glencoe before setting off down Glen Etive to our starting point, a layby at the end of the track leading into Glen Ceitlein.

Hoisting our packs aloft, we left the relative civilisation of the winding single-track road behind and set off along the track. The route drops to cross the River Etive via a solid bridge constructed by the army in what is a wonderfully leafy little gorge. Once over, the track bears right to reach a junction a short way on. Here we turned north, following the river upstream towards Glenceitlein cottage.

A pair of red deer stags, clearly on the wrong bearing, was trapped in the narrow corridor between the river and a high fence on the east side of the track. We proceeded cautiously, taking care not to cause them any further anxiety. But our presence helped point the noble beasts in the right direction and, as we followed at a safe distance, they marched clear of their confines and disappeared off across the moor.

Just ahead of the cottage, and after crossing the Allt Ceitlein, a track bears right, following the burn up into Glen Ceitlein. Underfoot, the terrain here grew increasingly wet and muddy as we gained altitude, thanks in part to a herd of grazing Highland cows churning up the soft ground as they ambled aimlessly around the empty glen.

The track soon narrowed to a path and this gradually petered out, leaving us with a boggy trudge up into the col between Meall nan Eun and Meall Tarsuinn. Coirean Riabhach offers a steep and rather claustrophobic route on to the col and we were glad to haul ourselves up onto the airy pass where at last we could dump our packs briefly. Leaving them in the col, we made for the summit of our first Munro, Meall nan Eun, enjoying the freedom a packhorse must feel when it is relieved of its load.

After time spent enjoying views over Loch Tulla, Loch Dochard and Glen Kinglass, we dropped back into the pass to collect our luggage before tramping over Meall Tarsuinn to the bealach below our second Munro of the expedition, Stob Coir’ an Albannaich.

Surveying the pyramidal and rather inaccessible looking north-east face of the peak, we weighed up the best route to the top, eventually electing for the higher of two diagonal fissures cutting sharply across the rocky flank. Our plan worked and after a rather gruelling ascent, we emerged on to the eastern ridge where a path led to the summit cairn.

Unfortunately the weather was closing in and the cloud had drawn a grey veil over any hopes of a mountainous panorama, parting only briefly to offer a tempting glimpse of our next target, Glas Bheinn Mhor. With no obvious path, we left the top on a compass bearing, carefully picking our way down to the col, taking care not to lose too much height.

We opted to camp here, leaving the three remaining Munros for the next day. A flat, dry spot was found in the generally rather marshy ground and we pitched our lightweight tents. Our high level homes for the night were a shinny new Salewa Micra and my trusty if rather old Phoenix Phlighter. Both are light and compact and offer more space and flexibility than a bivi-bag. Despite paring our equipment back to the bone, we did find space for a bottle of red wine, the perfect accompaniment to our hillside supper.

As the evening drifted away, the cloud cleared and we were treated to a spectacular sunset, an explosive red hue erupting over the Buachaillies and Bidean nam Bian. Optimistic of good weather ahead we turned in, satisfied with our endeavours.

However, hopes of a fine day ahead faded as gusty winds and heavy rain showers lashed our little tents during the early hours. Conditions were little better when we finally emerged from beneath the flysheet to find thick cloud reducing visibility to nose-length. Happily both tents survived the overnight enslaught.

Undeterred, we set off after breakfast. From the head of Coir’ an Albannaich, an obvious path climbs south-west, over a rocky ridge, the gradient easing higher up ahead of a final pull on to the summit. Thankfully the cloud was already beginning to lift and as we reached the top, we were rewarded with views over our previous Munros and the next challenges of the day, Beinn nan Aighenan, and the highest of our five peaks, Ben Starav.

The path descends over Meall nan Tri Tighearnan and just ahead of the lowest point on the ridge, we ditched our packs once again and set off light for Beinn nan Aighenan. The slope descends steeply to the col ahead of a concerted climb over the rocky north shoulder of the mountain. It’s a well graded ascent and, unhindered by our rucksacks, we made good time and were soon standing on the summit, casting our gaze over the high peaks and deep glens around us before returning to the main ridge.
With the sun now shining brightly, we stopped to cook lunch in a rocky hollow before embarking upon the final ascent of the day.

A path strikes straight up the eastern ridge to a rocky outlying top of Ben Starav. Ahead of this, a skinny vein of white quartz cuts through the mountain, shattered pieces of the rock brightening up the otherwise grey terrain. A narrow section of ridge offers some easy, fun scrambling above the coire which plunges steeply down to the right.

The path rises on to the outlying top of Stob Coire Dearg and from here it is a short, easy walk to the top of Ben Starav where we found a large cairn, the remains of a cylindrical trig point and a simply stunning vista south over the long finger of water that is Loch Etive.

Our descent took us back to the bealach where we had earlier cooked lunch. From there we dropped north into the glen, following the Allt nam Meirleach down past a couple of spectacular gorges. The path is generally solid higher up, but lower down the valley it becomes marshy and muddy and the final section into the base of Glen Etive is a rather damp trudge.

A bridge lower down crosses the burn and a wide path leads to the securely boarded climbing club hut at Coileitir. From here, a track skirts through woodland to the army bridge and the final wander back up to the road. Before we’d even reached the car we were making plans for our next high-level backpack – the mighty Mamores.

WALK FACTS

The route we followed is 30km/19 miles in length. It is an arduous trek with 2840 metres of ascent in total and is best tackled by fit backpackers. Start and finish at the layby 1km north of Druimachoich on the Glen Etive road (grid ref NN 131468). There are tracks and paths for much of the route, but some sections are over rough, stony ground. Navigation is straight-forward in clear conditions but in bad weather accurate navigational skills, a map and compass are a must. You will need OS Landranger (1:50,000) map sheet 50 or Harvey’s Glencoe. The best spots for high level camping are in the bealachs where shelter and streams can be found. In winter, when there is snow and ice on the ground, add ice axes and crampons to your pack list.

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