IT was an overdue reunion, a weekend jaunt to the Arrochar Alps, that small cluster of fine, rugged mountains to the west of Loch Lomond.
They are old friends, my fallback hills when I was based in Glasgow, a short run out from the city when the weather was misbehaving or the thought of travelling any great distance too daunting.
They were also the mountains where I honed my winter skills, a snowy playground less than an hour away on decent roads.
The Cobbler was where it all started, a grand picnic spot under the summit block on a hot summer’s day which provided the kick-start to my mountain obsession.
Ben Vane was my first solo Munro, Beinn Ime the mountain where I first used crampons and ice axe in anger. And Ben Vorlich was the first hill where I discovered that all routes are not equal as we suffered by taking the most convoluted approach possible.
So many ascents, so many memories, over 15 years of regular visits. I knew these hills like the back of my hand, yet my pictures of this area are few and far between, and those that do exist are mainly of poor quality. The mountains were the focus, we didn’t have the time or inclination to hang about snapping photos in the days before digital.
It seemed like only yesterday since I was last there, but as we prepared for Sunday’s trip, I was stunned to realise it had been nine years. Suddenly, the anticipation levels soared further. I couldn’t wait to be reaquainted.
As it turned out, I was lucky to have remembered them so well. There was little chance of seeing them this time - the tops were shrouded in cloud, there was a fierce wind and rain was due to arrive around lunchtime.
We were dropped at Butterbridge, an instant hit of heavy breathing as we took to the steep slopes. These are unrelenting hills – everything rises from the road, no sneaky height advantages.
It didn’t take long to be swallowed by the grey, but we veered left before the bealach with Beinn Luibhean, coming round on to the main path to hit the summit in just over two hours.
We heard voices in the gloom and then another group appeared one by one to quickly touch the cairn and then duck behind the summit crag to try to find some shelter.
The rain started during the long drop down to the Bealach a’ Mhaim and the usually boggy lower reaches took on even more water, every step a soggy squelch or slide.
We were relieved to reach the lowest point, the busy crossroads between three peaks, and surprised to see so many people, even on these popular, easy to access hills.
Earlier in the week, I had been on the Monar hills in stunning weather and saw just one person in nearly 12 hours. Here, there were scores milling about despite the wild conditions.
The summit of Beinn Narnain was visible only in the mist and the memory, so we made a brief stop at the trig point and then dropped down the rocky gully under the Spearhead, the huge buttress which fronts the mountain.
This is Beinn Narnain’s finest feature. Most of my previous ascents had been made from the south-east ridge, and I always felt a rush of excitement when I caught the first glimpse of this huge rock bastion.
In clinging mist it seems even more imposing, a menacing presence looming over doubtful travellers, a rock Cerberus guarding the entrance to the summit.
There were more threatening shapes below as the path twisted and teased its way through crags. Further down, the path became more like a mini waterfall, and our descent in the incessant cascade was more akin to canyonning than hillwalking.
The final section drops down a line of concrete blocks, once the base of a rail track during the construction of the Loch Sloy Hydro scheme, the high steps a severe test for the knees.
New paths and direction signs in the last ten years have seen fewer people using this route and the forest has taken advantage, reclaiming ground quickly. By the time I get back to Arrochar I wouldn’t be surprised to see that it has been smothered completely.