After a sodden winter, it was lovely to get back to some real walking and ignore the doctoral work for a couple of days. My family are by no means serious hikers, but we like to knock off a Munro every year. This spring, we decided to give ourselves an early start by attempting Ben Vane.
Situated to the west of Loch Lomond and just to the south of Loch Sloy, Ben Vane is part of the Arrochar Alps and only just pokes its head above the required height for a Munro at 3,002 feet. Nevertheless, what Ben Vane lacks in height it makes up for in character. It is a steep, squat little mountain whose rugged slopes will have your calves burning on the way up and your knees jarring on the way down.
The weather report for Monday wasn’t looking great – a dry start followed by rain at 1400hrs. With this in mind, we made an early start and aimed to be on our way down from the mountain when the rain began. Skimming the shores of Loch Eck and cutting through the Rest and Be Thankful is always a wonderful journey, and we managed to arrive at Inveruglas at 10am.
The approach to the Munro is dominated by three peaks – A’Chrois, Ben Vorlich, and Ben Vane itself. One doesn’t have to walk for very long before the electric substation in Inveruglas fades from memory and the only reminder of civilisation are the occasional barns and farm houses off to the side of the road.
Soon the track leaves the road and begins to snake up the mountain. When we began the climb, it was intermittently upon boulders, scree, and marsh. The ascent is quite steep and there are few places where walkers can catch their breath without stopping. One such place is a viewpoint over the hydroelectric works at Loch Sloy, which was picturesque and provided our first little break.
As we climbed higher, a view over Loch Lomond and towards Ben Lomond revealed gathering clouds that were not forecast until much later in the day. Aware that we were up against the clock, we pressed on. Eventually we met the snowline and found to our dismay that the drifts were waist-deep in most places. This made walking without ice axes and crampons very challenging, and on a number of occasions members of our party had to be dug out of drifts into which they had sunk!
As the snow grew deeper and the sky darker, we were reduced to following the tracks of walkers who had made the trek earlier in the day. They had obviously been wearing crampons, and so the trail became very steep and challenging for those of us in walking boots. On the final ridge to the top, and after the wind has risen to a screaming cacophony in our ears, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that our increasingly slow progress through the heavy snow would mean at least another hour’s struggle before we reached the summit cairn. We turned back.
It felt like a disappointing end to what had been a lovely walk it was undoubtedly the right decision. So steep was the slope that we had been climbing, we had to slither down two-hundred metres of snow and ice on our backs – not great when you are heading towards sheer drop offs with only your hands in the snow to use as anchors! Nevertheless, after some very cold digits and a brief period of separation due to differing slide rates, we made it down below the snowline once more.
The sleet had begun in earnest by now and the rest of the walk was a wet affair. Snow and rain, glasses, an uneven footpath, and tired legs do not a good combination make. By the time we returned to the car park we were wet through, albeit still in good spirits. A drive home, an Indian takeaway, and a fire in the wood burner saw us right.
Lessons learned: Don’t trust BBC weather for hour by hour accuracy.
However well-equipped you are for hill walking, there is no substitute for proper snow-an-ice gear.
Doctoral studies have not (as yet) caused me to fear for the structural integrity of my outer extremities.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Like and comments always appreciated!*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.