In 2002, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was born, encompassing 720 square miles of mountains, lochs and forests. To the north-west of Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, it is an easily accessible playground for the outdoor enthusiast. From water sports to hiking and family activities, there are plenty of options for enjoyment, and for hikers like me, it encompasses not only the earlier sections of the West Highland Way, but 21 Munros (Scottish mountains >3000ft).
I enjoy hiking mountains, not just for the exercise and achievement in doing so, but mainly for the reward in the view at the top and the satisfaction of ticking another summit off the list. I don’t personally see the point in hiking a mountain when it is poor weather, as the view is my favourite part, but yet nearly a week after summiting Ben Nevis in low cloud, I found myself with just one chance at hiking Ben Lomond and a poor weather forecast to contend with. Without my own transport, it didn’t take much to convince my brother to drive me there and join me on the hike, and so, despite the predictions, we set off from my parent’s house on the nearly 1.5hr drive to the car park at Rowardennan.
Within the trees on the banks of Loch Lomond, the large car park (cash payment only) was nearly full despite the grey clouds that hung overhead. Aside from the munro, there are a few local walks as well, but it seemed that Ben Lomond was a common destination. On stepping out of the car, I was immediately overwhelmed by a large swarm of midges. When I used to live in Scotland, midges were a presence but rarely an annoyance for me. Perhaps my blood wasn’t that attractive, or perhaps my memories are selective, but of my 29 years of living in Scotland, and many trips to the west coast, I can only remember a couple of occasions where they were a pain. Now however, I had the allure of foreign-tasting blood, and in just a t-shirt, my arms were soon blackened with the largest concentration of midges I have ever seen. The ones that weren’t munching on my arms were swirling around my face, and my patience quickly went as I waited for my brother to get geared up.
The last time my brother had hiked Ben Lomond, the start of the track was being upgraded and there was a detour from the information centre. On this day, the track had reopened at its original location behind the information centre and we set off, hounded by the midges the whole time. Starting in the lower forest where the view was minimal, we reached a clearing where shortly after we were sent on a diversion as the next section of track was being upgraded. The track was still obvious but a little rougher under foot, and with less trees, it soon became obvious that the summit of Ben Lomond was nowhere to be seen.
Despite gaining altitude from the beginning, the midges continued to follow us, and through bracken we continued our gentle climb until we reached a bridge which led us onto grazing land. Below us, Loch Lomond was disappearing into the distant cloud, and now Ben Lomond stood in front of us, low cloud swirling around. Like Ben Nevis the week before, I was amazed at the number of people out hiking on such a poor weather day. Groups of kids were out doing a charity walk and they showed me up with their youthful fitness. They stopped often though, so eventually we passed them by as the path continued its steady climb.
A light drizzle started, and whilst my brother kitted up in his waterproofs, I decided to press on without as I was quite warm from the effort. It wasn’t particularly heavy at this stage, but by now we were in the cloud, and I had no idea how far we had to go with no point of reference. I just followed my brother and the well-trodden path, but the higher we got, the more I noticed people giving me a strange look as they came down in wet weather gear and I plodded on in capri-pants and a t-shirt. At about 850m, the path began to zig-zag, and on turning a corner at a low false-summit, it was like walking in to a wind tunnel, and I found myself suddenly cold and wet. It was a mission to put on my waterproofs in the driving wind and rain, and I was aware of plenty of soaked-looking people emerging out of the mist above us.
Duly kitted up, we pushed on for the final summit push. Unfortunately, the weather meant I spent most of the time staring at my feet, so the summit push is a bit of a blur. There was an initial steep section followed by tracing the outline of the eastern corrie, a rocky plinth that gave brief shelter before we were left exposed again for the final trail along the summit ridge until the summit emerged from the gloom. It was so busy here despite the now heavy rain, that we couldn’t even get a photo at the summit marker, having to make do with a photo on the path at the summit edge. We could have been anywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were up there, but with the rain quickly drenching us, there was no point hanging around.
There are two options for descending: back the route you’ve just come up, or going down the Ptarmigan route. I assumed with the weather that my brother would want to do the quicker, easier route back down, but having done it before, he suggested we take the Ptarmigan route so despite not being able to see it through the clouds, I followed his lead and was amazed at the barely visible path disappearing over the cliffs. Had I been on my own, I would never have even noticed this as a path, it was so discrete in the clouds. I certainly didn’t feel unsafe, but it was a shame to miss out the views that I’m sure this route would afford on a good weather day. It reminded me somewhat of the hike I did on Little Mount Peel in New Zealand with a rapid descent over rocky drops in altitude towards the summit of the Ptarmigan.
Crossing near a series of small peaks (of which one is the Ptarmigan), the path turns to descend back onto the green-covered hillside. The rain was still ongoing, and despite having not eaten and both being quite hungry, there was nowhere sheltered to stop. By now several hours into the hike, my jacket was starting to lose it’s waterproof abilities and I could feel myself getting damp within. As we continued on a now gentle descent down the front face of Ben Lomond, the grass changed to bracken, and we could just about make out Loch Lomond through the occasional break in the clouds.
Eventually we found ourselves back in the forest above Rowardennan and we followed a burn as it made its way down towards the road. Then it was just a matter of walking along the tarmac back to the car park where we tried to warm back up in the car, eating our lunch surrounded by the midges that sneaked in with us. Whilst I’m very glad I ticked another Munro off the list, it reinforced why I don’t enjoy hiking when there isn’t a view involved. Perhaps on a sunnier occasion when I’m next in the country I might try this one again, but for now, I’m going to leave the mountains for better weather.