Misty Mountain Hop: A day trip up Ben Vane

I’ve never been a fan of day trips. They’re usually rushed, there’s limited time to relax and there’s rarely a chance for that sweet nectar reward that presents itself at the end of a walk either. But having not stood on the summit of anything higher than 1000ft in months, the free Monday was looking more and more appealing. The logistics of the trip meant that I would be on the 6:10am bus into Glasgow city centre to meet my mate Dave, then both of us get the 7:00am bus headed for Fort William. This would drop us at the bottom of Sloy Power Station at Inveruglas at 8:10am, ready to start walking. The Munro we had chosen to walk was Ben Vane and at 3002ft it only just creeps into the Munro tables. (Not that I’m a list ticker or anything, infact, going by the number of times I get up a Munro these days, calling myself this would be insulting to actual list tickers!)

Anyway… the weather hadn’t been too bad on the journey north out of Glasgow, a slight shower that lasted all of 10 minutes and the odd rain cloud blocking the sun now and again. I was fairly confident we would get a reasonable day on the hill and was looking forward to the view from the top. I would finally get some close up photos of the Arrochar Alps.

After a few photos at the lochside, a morning start-up brew and a bit of testing each other’s tree ID skills, we set off along the main road towards the turn off onto the landy track which runs up towards Loch Sloy. As we walked past a few portacabins and under the pylons that litter the area, I struggled to feel like I was going ‘up the hills’. The closeness to the road and the very apparent industry cancels any feeling of remoteness, which is one of the main reasons we do this. Allegedly.

lochside

Maybe I am a list ticker after all… When I first started going to the hills, the main objective was to bag at least one Munro, preferably two to make the trip that little bit more worth while. On one trip to the Grey Corries, me and a friend bagged four Munros in the one day but the route we chose meant coming back over two of them again to get back to the bothy, so technically we had made the ascent and descent six times! During those days, we were making a point of not doing the same Munro more than once if we could help it so I suppose I was a list ticker back then. But once I had tallied up a few trips and learned how to navigate to a reasonable standard, I started going up hills on my own. The thing is, I always found myself returning to the same hills I had enjoyed before. I was using my time getting to the summits of Munros I had already stood on once, twice, even three times before! It was during this time that I realised that it doesn’t matter how many times you walk up the same path to shelter in the same cairn on top of the same summit, something is always different about the trip. Always. In my experience anyway! But… and this is a big but, the lacking drive to tick off the Munros can sometimes have a negative effect as well. In my last 5 trips away, I have only stood on the summit of one hill. It’s only recently that I have realised this and decided to start ticking away again. Otherwise one of the massive perks of hillwalking, that being that it can take you to the far reaches of the country that you would otherwise never visit, becomes redundant.

We reached the junction in the track where we were to turn off left to head towards the start of the climb up Ben Vane. To carry on the track would bring us to the start of the climb up Ben Vorlich on the right and further past that to reach the Loch Sloy dam. We took the time at the foot of the walk to have a quick munch, double check the guidebook and I took a bearing on the map. The going for the first 20 minutes was fairly boggy, nothing too bad but enough to get the boots muddy. The path varied between being almost non-existent to being so eroded that it was almost a 10ft wide swamp. I was actually quite surprised to see this, especially with this hill and the ones surrounding being so popular with the west coasters due to their proximity to Glasgow (just over an hour’s drive from the centre of Glasgow!).

By this point, the cloud was already beginning to lower at such a quick rate to the point I thought we might be in for our first mist inversion. We stopped for a quick 5 minute break when we reached the bottom of a 30ft outcrop. The going had been getting steeper and the lack of wind was making the air humid so even when it started to spit with rain we were both too warm for jackets. This sort of weather can be the most frustrating on a hill, you can’t see a thing around you because the cloud is blocking everything, even the sun. So it’s dull and overcast but you feel like you’re in the height of summer with the amount of sweat trickling down your face. I don’t know how many times I’ve said the fateful words “I wouldn’t mind a bit rain now, just to cool me off!!”, but of course it never comes when you ask for it. The big bastard in the sky prefers to soak you when you’ve just put your waterproofs back in your rucksack!

dave outcrop

As we carried on the hill began to get very steep, the path narrowed and became more defined and there was a few bits of scrambling. There were ways around the hands-on stuff but of course we chose to put our poles away and have a bit fun. I’ve always argued the old saying that hill walkers want to be rock climbers but I can’t deny that using your hands on rock, even if it’s just scrambling up a 20ft outcrop adds something better to a walk. We had been on the hill for almost 2 hours and only had views of the surroundings for about half of that. The cloud had been coming and going ever since we started gaining height and now we were at about 2400ft (according to my inconsistent altimeter watch) it had come in to stay. It wasn’t thick enough to get us wet but showed enough of itself to block any views down to the glens, not only that but blocking upward views to the summit. As I said earlier… frustrating.

dave looking into mist

I had read in the guidebook that there are several false tops before the true summit is reached. I think I must’ve said “I’m pretty sure the top is just over this outcrop here…” about three times before it started getting funny. The cloud obviously wasn’t helping so when we actually pulled ourselves up over the final bit of scrambling, the sight of a cairn was a relief! The summit of Ben Vane is an odd one. The climb up to it is steep on all sides but the actual summit is a small flat plateaux. It reminds me of an upturned ice cream cone that has had its end bitten off. That probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone apart from me but maybe a few will get the jist of that.

The summit plateaux has two cairns on it which was at first confusing because the difference in height is hard to judge. We chose to take our pictures at the farther away one, I guessed the cairn sitting closest to the end of the climb probably marks just that, the end of the ascent and the start of the summit plateaux. The farther away one would mark the true summit. As we took our rucksacks off and got our sandwiches out, the cloud was beginning to change. Blue sky was creeping through and the prospect of a view down towards Loch Lomond as well as over to Ben Vorlich was almost realised. Almost. Maybe it was too much to ask, all we got was blue sky above us.  The lovely views that I knew were hiding over to the south and the east remained hidden for the full hour and ten minutes in which we sat on the cairn.

Brilliant view as you can see...

Brilliant view as you can see…

dave summit

As we set off back down the route we came, it seemed much steeper than I remembered only a couple hours earlier. Some of the outcrops which we had scrambled up were now too steep to descend safely but a different route was welcomed, I try to avoid the straight up and back down tactic. I much prefer completing a circular route when out walking. When we had descended back to about 1500ft, which only took us about 20 minutes, we both noticed the patch of blue sky we had been treated to on the summit had grown and there was now more than likely a lovely view from the top. The cloud seemed to be disappearing from beneath us as well, and with every glimpse of the glen below we both rushed for our cameras and got as many photos as possible. It’s funny how desperate you get for photos when you’ve been deprived of opportunities all day.

me cloud lifting

bottom of hill

We arrived back at the bottom of the 30ft outcrop where we had stopped on our ascent and sat down again. The sun had been beginning to beat down on us as if it was midday and it was almost 4 oclock! As we finished off our bars of chocolate, we were finding it hard to get up and carry on. The glen was utterly silent. The end of the walk was near and the weather was only now just starting to improve, we sat there for another half an hour, defying the usual day trip guidelines of rushing to get home for the purpose of some other extra curricular activity. It felt like it was a summer’s day in the middle of July, it was nearly dinner time on a Monday at the end of September!! The cloud all around us had almost completely disappeared, the summit of Ben Vorlich to the east looked clear, the summit of A’Chrois to the south looked clear and although we couldn’t see it from where we were, I was certain the summit of Ben Vane was clear. Crystal clear. Fuckin’ typical.

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