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Ben Lomond

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.

Looking up at the clouds

 

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.

Looking down towards the hidden Loch Lomond

The path up Ben Lomond

Looking towards the summit of Ben Lomond

 

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.

View from the summit of Ben Lomond

Obligatory summit photo at Ben Lomond in the rain

 

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.

Looking down towards the Ptarmigan Route in the driving rain

 

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.

Following the Ptarmigan Route down the face of Ben Lomond

Loch Lomond just about visible through 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.

Ben Nevis

I followed the A82 south for an hour from Invergarry, all the while looking to the mountains as I passed, all of them hiding their summits in the clouds. I’d lived in Scotland for over 29 years of my life, but it took moving to the other side of the world to make me keen to summit Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. At 4,414ft (1346m) it far surpasses the minimum requirement of 3000ft to make it a Munro. Munro bagging is a popular past-time for serious hikers and hobbyists alike. I didn’t really get into hiking until I was 25, by then living in Aberdeen in the north-east of the country. I acquainted myself with the eastern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, and whilst I did a good bit of wilderness hiking with my then partner, up peaks that I have no idea what altitude they went to, I’ve only knowingly hiked one Munro, Lochnagar, and this was a favourite hike to head off to on a good day.

So when I took the turn off at the edge of Fort William up through Glen Nevis and into the car park, I was in two minds about what to do. This was my only chance on my trip to get up there, but I wouldn’t normally hike a mountain unless there is a view at the end of it. I popped into the visitor centre to ask their advice. The girl at the desk could only guess where the cloud base was, and advised that the section within the cloud was dangerous with poor visibility, as was the summit due to the potential for losing the path and walking off a cliff edge. Having come this far, I decided to hike up to the cloud base to atleast get some exercise, and make a judgement about going higher based on what I could see. I got chatting to a couple in the car park who had never been up either, and they laughed at me when I said I probably wouldn’t summit because of the warnings. I wondered at their foolishness, or cockiness when they seemed less prepared than me for a mountain hike. There have been concerns in the past that the hike has become rather touristy with people attempting it rather unprepared, and not giving it its due. I could see how this could be the case, and have seen similar issues in the mountains of New Zealand.

From the pay and display car park at the visitors centre, the long ascent starts as an easy riverside walk downstream to a bridge over the river Nevis. On the far side of the river it backtracks before a sign points up between a wall and a fence where it meets the path at the Ben Nevis Inn. Despite the weather forecast, it was a very busy route with a steady stream of people visible ahead and behind me. Early on, the ascent began and as I tracked my way up the hillside and along the glen I could see the clouds swirling around the nearby mountain tops. Even being overcast, it was a beautiful view up and down the glen.

On route to the Ben Nevis Inn

The rocky path going up the hillside

Looking back towards Fort William

Glen Nevis

 

By the time the path from the youth hostel joined the track and a couple of zig-zags broke up the monotony of the climb, I was already feeling the strain of 2 weeks over-indulgence on my road trip. Despite a southern summer of hiking, I was not as fit as I could be. The track is quite uneven and rocky under foot. Some parts of this lower section are a bit uncomfortable as a result, and many footsteps have eroded smoother paths at the side in an effort to avoid this. After crossing a footbridge, the path curves round the hillside to start the ascent up Red Burn valley, and it now became glaringly obvious that the summit was nowhere to be seen within the cloud base.

Footbridge over a small gully

Looking back after turning up Red Burn valley (the end of the West Highland Way is visible across Glen Nevis)

Hiking up Red Burn valley, the summit is hidden in the clouds

 

Having never hiked it before, I had no idea how much altitude was invisible, but I was resolute in my decision to hike to the cloud base and make a judgement call from there. I joined the steady stream of hikers who zig-zagged up the new path route to a low plateau where the dark waters of Loch Meall an t-Suidhe came into view. Several people had stopped here for a snack or a breather, and some track maintenance was being done on the section that passes by the loch’s side. After this short flat section, the path climbs again, meeting a path that heads left round the north face. Turning right, I had to stop almost immediately to kit up as a drizzle was starting. Behind me there were still many people on route up, and as I looked at the path ahead of me, there were several people on their way down.

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

The start of the rain with the summit in the cloud

Looking back down on the loch

 

The route snakes round the contours of the mountainside, crossing the Red Burn before eventually hitting the start of the real ascent. From here upwards, the path zig-zags up the slope, changing early on from a well marked path to a large boulder field and a narrowing of the path. After just a couple of bends I reached the cloud level, and spurred on by the now steady stream of descenders, I pushed into it to assess the visibility. I could see about 3-4m ahead and behind and decided that I’d keep going up until I felt uncomfortable with the lack of visibility.

With no point of reference, the hike became a long trudge upwards across first boulders and then scree. I lost track of how often it curved left then right then left again. There was a constant appearance of figures emerging from the gloom ahead of me and I had no idea how high I was climbing. I just followed the vague figures in front of me, and took reassurance from the regular stone piles that denoted the path route.

I came upon a junction and turned right like everyone else, and a little further on I became aware of a large group of people emerging from the cloud. I was surprised to find them standing at the bottom of a large patch of snow. The path led right up to it, and I paused briefly to watch people gingerly pick their way up, several people slipping on the way up and down. The main ream of footprints seemed to have resulted in an overly packed icy zone, so I tried to pick a path through fresher snow, still briefly sliding a few times before reaching the top. From the top of the snow, the bottom was barely visible through the cloud.

After the snow, the path continued to climb, although the gradient began to level off, and I surmised I must be near the summit. But emerging from the cloud was stone cairn after stone cairn, and still the path continued. Eventually I had to ask a descending hiker how close I was, and was relieved to discover I’d reach the summit in another 10 minutes. The visibility remained the same, and with no other reference than the regular stream of fellow hikers and multitude of stone cairns I pressed on wondering if I’d know when I got there.

But despite the lack of visibility, the summit became very obvious when I finally reached it. Emerging from the gloom, the ruins of an old observatory appeared, and behind that a rudimentary hut shelter raised up on boulders. I looked for an obvious summit marker, and soon found two of them, the higher one up on a plinth with a queue of people waiting to have their photo taken. It was cold and damp, but there was no way I was summiting Scotland’s highest mountain and not getting a photo to prove it.

At the summit of Ben Nevis

The summit shelter and observatory are just visible through the cloud

The other summit marker

Some hikers make use of the summit shelter

 

I didn’t want to wander too far with no idea where the gullies or cliffs were so I stuck to the obvious landmarks. Sheltered spots were in high demand, and I couldn’t believe how many people were out hiking that day in such poor weather conditions. I hunkered down in as sheltered a spot as I could find free, leaning against the wall of the old observatory, to enjoy my lunch. It wasn’t long until I was joined by other hungry hikers and I noted several that had come up with their dogs. It was a convivial gathering of like-minded people, but the coldness and drizzle meant that nobody wanted to hang around longer than necessary to refuel.

Ruins of the observatory

The doorway of the old observatory

 

Just past the observatory is an official cairn with a plaque denoting it as a war memorial. Once more I followed the figures disappearing into the clouds, able to make out the well trodden track across the many boulders of the summit plateau. Finding myself back at the snow bank I watched as nearly every single person on the descent fell over. I decided that there was no better way for it, and swiftly sat down on my butt and pushed off, tobogganing gleefully down to the bottom with ease. Further on, I kept an eye out for the junction, knowing that this would be the one place I could go awry in the poor visibility. Thankfully there was still a steady stream of ascenders and right where I thought it was, I got confirmation from some figures emerging below me from the cloud.

Cairn with plaque

Heading across the boulders near the summit plateau

 

I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement as I picked my way back down the zig-zag, still with no reference to gauge how far I was travelling. I was in a world of boulders and scree, the mountainside barren around me. I noted that the cloud base had dropped lower whilst I’d been at the summit, as I returned to the wider path near the base of the zig-zags and couldn’t see the loch.

Tracking across a scree slope

Picking a way through the boulders

The loch hidden from view

 

Finally the surrounding mountains broke through and I could see Glen Nevis again. The loch reappeared, and shortly after, the relentless zig-zags came to an end. I crossed back over Red Burn and at the junction by the loch, I looked up at the summit to see nothing but cloud. Retracing my steps past the loch and down into Red Burn valley, I was able to take in the scenery a bit better. The burn itself tumbles down the mountainside in a succession of waterfalls from high up the slopes of Ben Nevis.

Panorama below the clouds

Descending Ben Nevis

Crossing Red Burn

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

Land of clouds

Red burn cascades from the clouds

Red Burn

 

I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking across Glen Nevis to the far side of the valley, I was staring at the final descent of the West Highland Way, a multi-day hike that I would be walking in a few weeks time. As the valley opened up in front of me again, I trudged past the turn off for the youth hostel and made my way to the Ben Nevis Inn where several hikers sat outside in the beer garden enjoying a drink. Down the hill, and back along the river, I crossed the bridge back to the car park and eagerly took off my hiking boots ready for the long drive back to Glasgow. There are varying reports about the time needed to summit Ben Nevis, and had it been a better day I would have spent a lot more time at the summit. In the end, I summited in 3 hrs and descended in 2.5hrs, satisfied to knock off the King of all Munros.

Glen Nevis

Ben Nevis Inn

Bridge over the river Ness

Lochnagar

About an hour and a half drive to the west of the ‘Granite City’ that is Aberdeen, down a long and winding road with no exit, lies an unassuming car park near a small copse. The drive there on a beautiful day is an adventure in itself. The River Dee snakes its way from its origin in Cairngorm National Park towards the North Sea at Aberdeen, and heading upstream, the A93 on the northern side, and the lower grade B976 on the southern side brings you to Ballater. Crossing the river from the northern side, there is little further to travel to the signposted turn-off for Loch Muick. This long road follows the route of River Muick, a feeder river for the larger River Dee, up stream to its source from Loch Muick. Initially through some woodland, it opens up into an open glen of the same name, flanked by hills either side, and a smattering of trees and low shrubbery. At the right time of year, the heather bloom turns the normally green and brown landscape into a glorious purple.

Heather in bloom in Glen Muick

 

At the end of this long and windy road is a car park which on busy days can get very full. There is also a parking charge here, so having small change handy is a must. From here, the track heads down across a small river to a copse where picnic benches mark a picnic area, and a toilet block is located. From here there is a choice of walks. For a less challenging walk, or with families, the main destination is the nearest shore of Loch Muick. For a longer, but low grade walk, a path circumnavigates the entire loch, and for something more serious, some day and multi-day hikes can be reached from there too. More often than not, when I have visited Glen Muick, there has been a herd of wild red deer grazing in the area, and on one occasion, they were wandering amongst the picnic tables and very close up.

Red deer in Glen Muick

 

Lochnagar, a Munro (a Scottish mountain of >3000ft) is an easily accessible and rewarding hike. Standing at 3789ft (1155m), the ascent can be reached from the copse by not following the main route to the loch side, but by taking the path that goes up the side of the copse, crossing the river, and passing by some buildings before carrying on through another copse and coming out the other side. An easy stream crossing is followed by the start of a gravelled cut out path that starts to wind its way up the neighbouring hillside. A bit of altitude is gained before the path splits: the right fork continuing on towards Balmoral, and the left fork crossing over shrubbery before the slog up the mountain begins.

Looking back towards Glen Muick after the path splits

The start of the Lochnagar track

 

The path is clearly marked, and in good weather, it is very busy. The first section takes you up to a col between Meikle Pap (980m/3215ft) and Lochnagar ridge itself. Some of this section involves stone steps, and this col overlooks the water of Lochnagar, sitting below the ridge of the same name. Lochnagar burn can be seen disappearing off into the distance. Even in the height of summer, there can be patches of snow from this point onwards, and it is a fabulous spot to park up for some lunch before the final ascent. The summit and ridgeline takes the brunt of the weather and is often windy and cold, so this relatively sheltered spot is a far better spot to spend some time.

Approaching the col with Lochnagar in the background

Lochan Lochnagar below the ridge of Lochnagar

Lochnagar burn disappears into the distance

 

The steepest section is the second part, known as the Ladder, which picks its way up through the increasingly rocky terrain, at which point the path becomes a little less obvious, and it is best to focus on a spot to reach and just pick a way there. Eventually a plateau is reached, which is barren and rocky, and the path again becomes slightly vague across the central buttress until an obvious path appears again. A path that hugs the edge can be followed across Eagle Ridge, but as it goes quite close to a very long drop, it is certainly one to be very careful following, and the main route is somewhat further back. Some large rocks mark the west buttress, and finally the last lot of rocks to climb over marks the true summit, marked with a plinth. In all directions, mountains and hills roll off into the distance, with Ballochbuie forest in the far north-west, and Loch nan Eun to the south-west. There are plenty of rocks to hunker down next to if it’s windy, but even on a warm day, it quickly feels cold up here.

The Ladder

Crossing the plateau

Western Buttress

At the summit of Lochnagar

 

From the summit, you can retrace your steps the way you came, but I always chose to make the circuit, and follow the path down the backside of Cuidhe Crom and Little Pap, which follows the route of Glas-Allt. It is a well-maintained pathway, with an easy descent through low shrubbery, and lots of little waterfalls to ogle at. Eventually, Loch Muick comes back into view at the top of a large waterfall, Glas-Allt Falls. This is the steepest section of the descent which arcs down the side of the waterfall, and offers a viewing point of the falls at the bottom. From here, it is an easy walk along the side of Craig Moseen, and a final, easy descent to Glas-Allt-Shiel, in full view of the western edge of Loch Muick.

Glas-Allt

Small waterfall on Glas-Allt

Loch Muick viewed from the top of Glas-Allt Falls

Upper section of Glas-Allt Falls

Glas-Allt Falls

Loch Muick

The head of Loch Muick

 

Near a royal lodge (used by Queen Victoria, and later Prince Charles) hidden amongst a copse, the path joins the circuit path of Loch Muick, and the car park can be reached by either taking the left, northern (quicker) circuit back, or turning right, and following the path round the head of the loch, to return on the southern aspect. At the foot of the lake on the more northern route, a little boat house marks the end of a small pebbly beach where you can stroll along the side of the lapping tannin-tainted water, and cross the bridge to join the more southern track back to the car park.

Loch Muick

Boathouse on Loch Muick

Loch Muick beach

River Muick leaving Loch Muick

 

Realistically, this is a full day hike, averaging 6-7 hours dependent on fitness, and time spent ogling the views at the various viewpoints. With many exposed sections, and potential for year-round snow, this is not a hike to take lightly, and warrants being well prepared. Hiking this route in winter is best left to those with winter skills experience, but in summer it is a fantastic walk well worth making the drive for.

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