Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Ben Lomond from Loch Lomond Wildcamp

The first glimpse of Scotland's most southerly Munro, Ben Lomond is one of many favourite moments during trips north to the Scottish Highlands. Ben Lomond is like an old friend sitting by the side of Loch Lomond welcoming you back to what us outdoor folk think of as the real world. Despite admiring Ben Lomond many times through my car windows from the A82 trunk road on the western side of Loch Lomond, I have never actually climbed it. I have seen many impressive photos from my Glasgow-based friend's adventures up the mountain that is often dubbed "Glasgow's Mountain". I took a few days annual leave and decided that I would head north with a plan to drive up the eastern side of Loch Lomond to Rowardennan, wild camp on the Ptarmigan Ridge then bag the summit of Ben Lomond in the morning. I booked off Thursday and Friday so I could do the wild camp on the quiet Thursday night. One of our outdoor friends Frank was climbing his final Munro of Beinn Fhionnlaidh near Glencoe on Saturday, followed by celebrations in the Clachaig Inn for his 60th birthday, so I could combine the wild camp with that too.

Bonnie bank of Loch Lomond at Rowardennan Pier

I had a busy start to the week at work: I was sent to Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester in three days. I packed on Wednesday night and checked the MWIS and Met Office weather forecasts. Damp, cloudy, drizzle and breezy were all mentioned, which didn't exactly inspire much energy the next morning. I set off on time and travelled up the M61 then M6 with no problems. It was dark and cloudy with the odd shower through England. As I approached the Solway however, the clouds gave way to blue skies and hazy sunshine which lasted all the way through Scotland. I used the newly extended section of the M74 that skirts south of Glasgow city centre. It was quite a novelty seeing the city from a new angle and took half an hour off the journey. When I reached the roundabout at Balloch - the one with the eyesore of a sculpture - I turned right and passed through Balloch. The last time I was in Balloch was 1996 to watch Oasis, one of the most memorable events of my younger years. I have never driven up the road from Drymen to Rowardennan via Balmaha that skirts the eastern side of Loch Lomond. It is a rather stunning area with incredible views across Loch Lomond. The parking and camping along the road seems to have changed a lot over the years so it was hard to find information on exactly where to park. When I reached the Rowardennan Hotel and saw a few free parking spaces behind the hotel I decided to park up. I left in great spirits as the weather was far better than had been forecast. The night before I wouldn't have believed I would be seeing the views I was about to across Loch Lomond. I walked along the road passing the proper car park where I should have parked, then reached the bay by the pier at Rowardennan.

Sun setting over Loch Lomond
The views from the small bay across the still and silent loch were breathtaking. Looking up I could see the rocky knoll on the end of Ptarmigan high above and to its right the gloomy looking Ben Lomond shrouded in cloud. I walked past the Rowardennan Youth Hostel then past the park ranger offices before turning right on a path through the woods by Rowchnock House. The path passed by a tumbling burn, through a gate and ascended the hillside passing a sheep fold then continued ascending the hillside towards a waterfall on Sput Ban. I continued to follow the ascent path, pausing every so often to look back and admire the ever-opening views across Loch Lomond. The path, which wasn't too bad, continued a fairly simple route across Spat Bun skirting a small forest. As the path passed the long crag on Tom Fithich the sun was just starting to set to the west over the Arrochar Alps. The views were absolutely stunning at this point with blue skies and contrasting dark clouds. I crossed a small stream then the path started to get a little steeper and end up at the foot of some tricky zigzags. The zigzags were tough, though only because I'm not used to the weight of a pack of wild camping gear these days. I was eventually on the top of Ptarmigan with the first proper view of Ben Lomond which looked quite foreboding shrouded in windswept grey cloud. Ahead I could now see the small lochan that was the planned wild camp spot.

Loch Lomond from Tom Fithich
I reached the lochan and hunted for a decent flat area to camp. The only problem was the wind. Up here on the ridge itself it was getting windy, so with that in mind and realising the wind direction was coming from the east I headed round the lochan and down the western side of the ridge. I soon found a flat spot out of the wind and set up camp. The view down Loch Lomond from the camp spot was awesome, looking down almost its entire length. However, by the time I had set up camp the sun had set, it was getting breezy and where Loch Lomond had been, now there was cloud and the flicker of lights from Inverbeg, Tarbet and the A82. I settled in for the long night. It is easy to forget how long winter nights are; I would not see daylight for another fourteen hours! I made tea using the Primus Eta Express stove which I have been given to test and of which I will do a full review later this week. After tea I snuggled up inside my lovely new Rab Alpine 600 sleeping bag, which was major overkill as it was surprisingly warm for mid November. Due to the long night ahead I had downloaded an entire series of Big Bang Theory on to my iPhone. I lay in the tent watching my brilliant iPhone screen while outside the clouds were dropping lower, the air getting damper and the gusting winds picking up all the time. I looked outside at one point to find I was now in total darkness and a thick cloud.

The lochan on the Ptartmigan Ridge

By 8pm I started to get sleepy as I had got up early that morning and driven for several hours to get here. The winds seemed not to be giving up and were instead getting worse, so I grabbed my ear plugs and tried to doze off. A short while after the tent above me inverted and plunged toward my head. I am used to this and the disorientating flapping of a fly sheet in strong winds, so I just put my head back down and carried on trying to ignore the ever increasing winds. This went on for another hour and the tent inverted more frequently almost smacking me in the face a few times. By 9pm it was starting to bug me and a few times I had to put my hands up to stop it hitting me in the face. By 10pm I had adopted a bizarre position in the tent where my body in my sleeping bag was in the inner, my body above my chest was out into the porch. The reason for this was that I had to hold the structure of the tent in place, kind of using my body to complete a geodesic structure and stop the tent from constantly inverting and snapping the poles. It was also at this point that I packed everything away other than my sleeping bag and readied myself for the frightening possibility that I may have to abandon camp at 750m and descend the mountain in pitch black darkness, severe gales and thick cloud! Every so often the tent got brighter giving a false sense of security tricking my tired and exhausted mind into thinking it was a gap in the weather. This brightness was actually the white cloud coming over the crest of the ridge and down what I thought would have been the sheltered side of the ridge. The gusts were getting very serious now and almost flattening the tent. I lay in the bizarre position holding the tent for five horrific hours, getting more and more cold, hungry and tired.


Wild camping above Loch Lomond

The whole time I was thinking in my head was I doing the right thing riding out the storm. One extremely settling factor was that I did have reception on my iPhone, which I turned off at 9pm to conserve battery life. Knowing I had decent waterproofs, warm kit, enough food and decent head torch made a big difference too. With these things in mind and seeing as the tent had lasted so far, I decided staying in the tent was the right thing to do. The alternative after all was descending in the dark, damp and severe gales on an unfamiliar slippery path. Not only that but also with a heavy pack, exhausted, hungry and somewhat mentally shaken up. At 2am I checked the time and was glad to think I only had another five hours to see out. Then it all went wrong at around 2:30am: several gusts at the same time slammed the entire tent by my arms down flat to the ground. The tent, as it is designed to, popped straight back up, but two of the poles came out of the eyelets on the inner and threw themselves out. The tent was now all over the place and turned into a wind sock with myself inside it. I couldn't really tell what, if any, damage had been done and couldn't do anything to get it back into shape or even get hold of it. I bent over and stuffed my sleeping bag in its dry bag then the rucksack and made my way outside into the scary dark nightmare that I would now have to navigate for the next few hours with extreme care. Rescuing the tent was probably the hardest part of the whole night. I had to tie the doors around my legs then get on top of the tent and pull the pegs and poles out. This was while the entire thing was flapping around like mad. I was aware of the poles swinging around dangerously in the air. After throwing the tent and poles in the rucksack I made my way up the slippery and steep western side of the Ptarmigan Ridge to the small lochan. Getting back round the lochan I made a point of taking my time as I knew one slip and I would have been in the lochan.

The moon eventually helped out

I found the ridge path and despite the winds now blasting into me trying to push me over, seeing the path which I could now follow was a massive relief and made me feel a lot better. My pounding heart was now telling me to get down as quickly as possible to a more sheltered environment, but at the same time my head and experience were telling me to keep calm, and my eyes were on the ground below (now lit up by my head torch held in my hand). It is incredible just how much of an obstacle and annoyance wearing glasses and effectively having no eye sight without them can be a a time like this too. On the ridge in the cloud they steamed up immediately and I had to hold them on my head to stop them blowing off. If they had, there is no way I would have made it off the mountain by myself. Luckily the path was fairly clear and I was hugely relieved at finally reaching the bottom of the zig zag section. It was at that point that the wind started to ease as the path descended the more sheltered western side of Tom Fithich. It was also at this point that I smiled for the first time in several hours. I knew as long as I didn't trip or fall I would be safe. As the path swung in slightly and crossed the stream, the full moon appeared like a huge floodlight and even Loch Lomond could be seen. I could also see the lights of the youth hostel and hotel a Rowardennan. At the lower section of the path I did unfortunately slip on wet grass and upset an old football injury of my medial collateral ligament of my right knee. It was just a short walk through the woods then along the track back to Rowardennan where I sat in the dark on a bench by Loch Lomond. I looked around at the quiet, inky rippling water, the dark shapes of the mountains silhouetted by the moon, and it all felt so calm and innocent and a complete contrast to the scary nightmare just a few miles up the mountain on the high exposed ridge. I tried to sleep in the car when I got back to it but only managed around half an hour. I set off feeling relieved to have escaped from what could have been a bad situation and proud of myself for dealing with it so well. The trip up to Glencoe was great as the sun was only just rising and created stunning scenes around the mountains. Some of the ridges had cloud rushing over them at speeds I had never seen before. I arrived at the Clachaig Inn at around 8:30am where I was given a taste of true Highland hospitality. They made me a free bacon sandwich and pot of tea, then arranged a room for me that I could sleep in during the day, re-energised ready for the arrival of the rest of the folks later on.

I have uploaded the photos from the day here.

Route Map...

13 comments:

  1. So, not a good night then...
    Great photos BTW.

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  2. Nope not the best, though looking back now I'm glad I dealt with it well. Plus two days later I was back up another mountain :-)

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  3. An eventful night! Well done for getting it sorted. All adds to the 'experience'. Experienced backpackers are those that have got away with it.
    :-)

    I have *at last* managed to add you to the blogroll. I have only just realised what I have being doing wrong for so long; I had been trying to link it to your site rather than the blog section. Sorted now - a few years late, but hey!

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  4. Well, well, well.....what a hoolie eh? LOL Glad you got back down safe and well mate. Never nice. I note your camp is on an up slope? How was it in lee of the wind? Just as bad I guess.

    Was the tent ok then? Bent poles? Tears?

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  5. Excellent write up really enjoyed this, sounds like you had a real mental night can't believe it popped the poles you must have been in some winds for that, wow great stuff

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  6. When I camped there last year I pitched in the dark on the first flat bit before the wee lochan. Sounds like you had a wild camp that wont be forgotten. I find some of the more "wild", wild camps are often the most memorable ones!

    More importantly did the tent survive?

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  7. Pretty scary when this happens. I had to do the same thing on top of a Cumbrian fell at 3 in the morning a couple of years ago. Well done for getting down OK.

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  8. This whole camping in Scotland thing is over rated. Hotels are indeed the future.

    ;0)

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  9. A wild adventure. Like that. Nice one Jamie. Hope the tent will see more adventures soon.

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  10. That sounds like a hell of an outing!
    Have you seen this post on Red Yeti's Blog? http://drw.me.uk/RedYeti/2009/04/29/the-terra-nova-superlite-voyager-toughened-up/)
    It covers a fairly cheap solution to the Voyagers problems.

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  11. Quiet an experience, very worrying at the time, glad you got down ok, hope the tent's ok. Glad you had a successful time with Frank and the crew.A.R.

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  12. Well son, you survived yet another adventure...I'd like to live to be old so stop scaring me to death! All the same, I loved reading your blog and fab pic of the sun setting over the loch.

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  13. High drama! Have had similar nights (all quite some time ago) but never quite that bad. It's good that you had such a good day soon after!

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