An unpredictable weather forecast and a whippet that can’t cope with long mountain hikes in the cold and wet led us to a local hiking favourite on Saturday. After a much-needed lie-in, we set off mid-morning to walk The Cobbler (Ben Arthur) from Arrochar at the head of Loch Long.
The Cobbler is not particularly arduous for us but it does start at sea level and climbs to an elevation of 884m (2,900ft). It’s a Corbett, which is a Scottish mountain between 2,500ft and 3,000ft.
The Cobbler sits in the Arrochar Alps, neighbouring the Munros Beinn Ime and Beinn Narnain, and because of their proximity to Glasgow and the central belt they are popular mountains. It is common to see dozens of people walking here and lots of family groups. It’s great to see so many people enjoying this accessible glen.
The weather on Saturday was mild at sea level. The air was still and although rain threatened it didn’t to seem foreboding. The weather forecast had changed from day to day all week and, to be safe, we decided to pack the usual winter safety kit in our rucksacks.
There was snow at higher levels and so we took crampons, spare baselayers and waterproof jackets and trousers. I added down gloves because my hands often suffer in the cold and I wore a thinner pair of gloves.
I also packed a fleecy jacket for Wispa the Wonder Whippet, as well as food and water.
Hiking The Cobbler in winter
The zig-zag path heads straight up from the road side and is steep in places. If you are not a seasoned hill walker it will come as a bit of a shock. The zig-zags seem to go on and on and I always feel like an extra one has been added in since I lasted hiked them.
However, the path is easy to find and it’s no wonder that so many people set out to walk in the Arrochar Alps.
At the top of this section, the glen opens up and you can see the mountains ahead (if the weather is fine). On Saturday it was immediately obvious the mountains were covered in snow and that low cloud would make it more difficult than usual to navigate.
The well-trodden path runs through the base of the glen, gently climbing towards the higher slopes of the three mountains.
In good weather, the path to the top of the three popular peaks is fairly easy to find, especially The Cobbler. But when covered in snow and with poor visibility it is not so easy to keep on track.
However, we are good navigators and experienced mountain walkers. We also had lots of back up kit in our rucksacks so we were sure we would be fine on The Cobbler.
Even then, I worried a little about slipping and just one bad slip could lead to an emergency situation where you need to have warm clothing, food and water to stay alive until rescuers can reach you, or as you make your much slower way back to base.
I say all this because I think so many people who come to this area (and other mountains deemed as “easier”) without due care and caution.
Walkers without the right kit
As usual in this area, we saw too many people walking the path through the glen in clothes that would be more suitable for a shopping trip. Indeed, a few people looked as though they planned to go out for the evening straight from the walk. I saw women in fashion boots with low heels, men in office brogues and plenty of people dressed in casual but not outdoors specific clothing. Yet, thankfully, I only saw them on the glen path before the snow.
The glen on Saturday was fairly snow free until higher elevation. The path lower down is rocky in places but not difficult to walk so it was possible for these people to “get away with it”, without the right footwear and clothing, but it would have been more comfortable and a lot safer for them to swap “high street” shoes for walking boots or even trainers.
But the worst was still to come. As we headed up the glen and on to the snow-covered rocky slopes of The Cobbler we met, at various intervals, people who were woefully ill-equipped. It took a lot of restraint for me to stay quiet as we passed a couple wearing jeans and anoraks. He had a pair of summer-style walking boots but she had only trainers. These were not off-road trainers.
If they had gloves they must have been tucked into their pockets and he carried a small bottle of water. They did not have rucksacks.
She did not seem to be too happy about the hike through the snow and I expect her feet were wet through and freezing. They asked us which way to go to “do the full circuit” and we tried to put them off doing this without the right kit, map and compass. I think they ended up turning back. I hope they did not push on regardless because higher up it became a bit scrambly and steep and in many places it was icy. The low cloud made visibility a little tricky in places.
During the course of the walk we saw other people wearing gym-style trainers with no off-road grip (while it is possible to ascend on snow in trainers, the descent is likely to be very difficult), three-quarter length trousers with bare skin showing, people with no rucksacks (therefore, no spare kit), people without a map or compass and scared-looking walkers with no sense of what they were really doing or where they were going etc etc.
(Thankfully we saw a few people like us with packed rucksacks and wearing the right kit for winter walking.)
I decided to use my crampons for much of the rocky descent on The Cobbler. I expect I could have managed without but I’d brought them with me and I thought they would be useful. They were! The G-Force was wearing heavy duty winter boots with good heel grip and he had walking poles so he was fine on the descent without crampons.
I imagine that most of the people that we saw with inadequate winter walking kit made it back to their cars safely. I hope they did. But why were they taking such unnecessary risks? It’s not difficult – or particularly expensive – to be properly kitted out for a winter hike.
I did not feel hampered by my rucksack and I enjoyed being warm and dry for the entire hike. The G-Force and I had a wonderful day out in the mountains.We felt as safe as we could be in the conditions and so we enjoyed the scenery, exercise and great chat.
After returning to the car, we headed to a friend’s house in Arrochar for a coffee and a catch up. He used to work with the local MRT. He confirmed that the teams are regularly called out in winter (and in summer!) to rescue people who do not have the right kit or experience.
It seems so frustrating that this happens because it really is not difficult to be better educated and have the right equipment. By doing so, the experience is altogether far better and rewarding, rather than dangerous and scary.
I am not saying that we could deter people from getting out and about in the superb Scottish landscape but, really, is it sensible to walk in the mountains in gym trainers and clothes that you would normally wear to pub and without any kind of spares, a map or a compass? I have been left rather shocked by the whole thing.