The road from Balmaha to Rowardennan is long and torturous as it picks its way along the loch shore. Eventually journeys-end comes into sight and we tumble groaning out of the car. Groaning from muscles that still ache from yesterday's 17.5mile trek around Loch Venacher. It takes a minute or two of stretching and walking around before legs and back feel something close to normal.
Today promises to be a different challenge. A mere 10 miles perhaps, but with the spectre of Ben Lomond’s summit looming over us both psychologically and physically. At almost a kilometre above us the mountain is lost in the rain cloud that has thankfully evaporated from our lowly altitude just above sea level. The first few steps remind us of how they might feel later, but the blood starts to pump through our recovering muscles as we begin the ascent through oak woodland. The going is good despite recent rain and we quickly cross the burn and logging road as we climb.
A strange site greets us as we tackle the next steep incline through birch woodland. At first I think there are patches of snow scattered up the hillside, but on closer inspection it appears that B&Q have delivered an order of rocks along the track. Strange place for such a delivery. As if there are not enough rocks on Ben Lomond! Further examination reveals that many of the bags are split wide open, with their contents disgorged for all to see. Such a careless delivery would have me on the phone immediately if I were the vendor.
It then becomes apparent that this was not your regular stone delivery. These one ton bags had evidently been delivered airmail. Close to each giant bag is a small orange flag standing almost defiantly out of the grass. These were doubtless the target points for each drop. No damage is done to adjacent trees so each package must have been delivered with great accuracy, probably by helicopter. Bags of stone, each heavier than a single man could lift, litter the hillside for a mile or so. No emergency air drop this, as one might find delivered to refugees in a war zone. It appears the best solution to the considerable footpath erosion on these well-trod lower slopes is to create stepping stones.
A descending hiker pauses briefly on the way down, to allow me up a narrow section. "I hope they won’t be dropping any today" I remark to him with a nod in the direction of a bag. "I'm sure they'll be very careful" he reassures me in the straight-faced way that the Scottish have achieved unique mastery of.
Frances is a little way behind me and has her granny face on. Lips pursed and body bent to the task in hand as she carefully selects the line of least resistance up the mountain. We have contrasting styles of ascent. Mine short bursts of energy that propel me upwards at speed followed by a period of recovery before the next spurt. Her approach is much more the efficient steady slog that eats up the sloping miles of terrain.
Beyond the woods the slope eases a little and we get chance to catch our breath on the less testing incline. A kissing gate in the 8-foot high deer fence provides a little welcome light relief, before relations reinforced, we continue onward and upward.
All the while a steady stream of early rising walkers pass us, on their return trip, full of smiles, hellos and encouragement for this pair of laggards struggling hours in their wake.
We are well into open country, approaching a saddle between Ben Lomond and its shorter neighbour to the south, when I spot a party of men labouring hard on the hillside. Some are in the process of digging drainage ditches to take run-off water from the path, whilst others are digging peaty turfs from the adjacent hillocks and carrying them over to where a supervisor is overseeing the construction of low conical grassy mounds.
In a cheery voice I call out to them “Are you the mountain fairy folk repairing the footpaths?"
As one they all rise from their labours, happy to be temporarily excused from their work, to engage in a little banter with a passing Sassenach. The exchange is cordial giving the conservation volunteers the opportunity to explain their cause. Each day they carry their tools several hundred metres up the mountain to repair the damage done to the mountain vegetation by thousands of passing feet. It seems the path used to be some 15 metres wide and that you could see the scar created from Glasgow. Their work has reduced it to a mere 1.5m today, but like painting that other icon of Scotland - The Forth Rail Bridge - maintenance of it is a never ending affair.
"Not everyone appreciates what we do. Some folk grumble about how rough the path is and want a stair lift put in!" jokes one volunteer.
Frances remarks about some people wearing trainers.
"You should be here in the summer. They all wear them" Groans one chap.
I enquire as to the purpose of the low grassy mounds. It seems they are a device to encourage people to stay on the path although I don't really understand how they achieve this.
"Anyone who strays off the path gets buried underneath them" chips in one of our gallant work party.
Then we are off, bidding them to keep up the good work. A donations tin is close by and I observe the odd fiver and coins inside. I fumble in my pocket for some of the latter, but find none. I'm not generous enough to part with the former, so a little guiltily we continue up their path, ensuring we avoid eroding any further vegetation.
The morning’s climbers continue to flow in the other direction. Some are smiles. Three young children are running about like excited spaniels. Their father proudly tells me they were the same on the way up. An elderly couple look grim faced and say nothing, their faces set earnestly to the task of negotiating the tricky return trip down steep rocks.
As we get higher the weather starts to close in. April sunshine is replaced by grey cloud. I take a last photo of Loch Lomond before it is swallowed up in the cloud. Frances is struggling more than me, perpetually castigating herself for lack of fitness. I always marvel that she does such treks at all considering it is only 6 years since she suffered a cardiac arrest. She is a game old bird, which is a dangerous thing to be in the Scottish Highlands with all the preponderance of the shooting fraternity around us.
It is difficult to know exactly where we are on the map. I share the bad news with her that we are not even half way yet. But we plod on. I remind her that we don't have to reach the top. 974m is only a number and is not important. She gamely tells me to go on ahead and not be slowed down by her. I decline the offer part out of gallantry and concern for her welfare, but also because I'm probably at my speed limit also.
As the cloud thickens, reducing visibility to 20 or 30m, the slope suddenly steepens.
"150m to the ridge at the top" I tell her. “That's only 15 walks from the bottom of our garden to the patio" I tell her.
Encouraged, we start the final ascent, counting each of the ‘patio’ sections in turn. This helps significantly.
The number of descending walkers has now reduced to a trickle, with the top of the mountain deserted - by all but the late starters. At 12 ‘patios’ I spot a small snow field on the colder northern edge of the mountain. Unable to resist I step into the snow feeling like Hillary or Tensing on Everest. I then realise the snow 4m in front of me gives way to a drop of several hundred feet down into the northern corrie and carefully edge back onto the path. Who knows how firmly the snow is glued to the mountain in April? Footprints in the snow indicate others have been even less cautious than me and I am reminded how frequently the careless and unfortunate come to grief in such places every year.
Frances however is reinvigorated by the site of snow and insists on having her picture taken standing in it. The wind is now streaming over the ridge effectively reducing the temperature to sub-zero proportions. Our waterproofs fully zipped, we struggle the last few hundred metres along the ridge towards the summit.
Then out of the mist a metre high monolith of concrete rises - a large chunk eroded from its base. This is a salutary reminder of the extreme power of the elements one km up. Hands joined we touch the summit simultaneously, delighted to have made it.
Our solitude on the mountain is interrupted by a young couple who were even later starting than us. Full of youthful vigour they must have fair-bounded up the mountain to catch us. The girl offers to take our picture as we stand grinning with nothing but grey cloud behind us. A relatively local lass, she had been up many times before and confides that on a good day you get a splendid view. We are unlikely to ever see that view ourselves but are nonetheless appreciative of her generosity and hunker down to consume chocolate and Scottish pancakes.
It only takes 10 more minutes for us to realise we are quickly losing body heat and decide to head back down. One last pair of climbers joins us as we pack bags and turn to leave. As we descend the temperature warms significantly. The wind speed quickly drops and soon the cloud is thinning sufficiently to see several hundred metres ahead of us.
Both couples quickly pass us saying "see you later."
I reply "I suspect not", adding, "by the time we get down you'll be long gone."
If climbing the mountain was Frances greatest challenge of the day, the descent is mine. A further 2 hours of constant knee bending, assisted by a walking pole, leaves my legs like jelly and my back as bent as Sisyphus, before we reacquaint ourselves with something close to sea level and a pleasant Loch Lomond sunsets.
Above us the mountain shrouded in cloud broods like some dormant volcano. We pitted ourselves against all that she could throw at us today and came out on top. As we drive back to the warmth of our waiting caravan I consider what it might be like to spend the night alone up there. I am well satisfied that we returned before dark even if we were last man on the mountain.
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Warning Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly. Summer routes may not be viable or appropriate in winter. See winter information on our skills and safety pages for more information.