It looked bleak. Incredibly bleak. The Met Office was right for once: high winds, low visibility and a vast amount of rain. Ruth, Lorna and I pored over the map (OS39) to ensure we knew where we were headed, checked the forecast again and came up with a plan of action.
The week leading up our wee expedition was a week of ups and downs for many reasons, but the one thing I had been looking forward to was getting some mountain head-space and experiencing another weekend of firsts. Lorna’s Bothy Bible had already proved invaluable as a research tool for our Introduction to Scotland weekend, having narrowed down our choices to three that were within an hour or so’s drive from Glasgow and within reaching distance of a Munro. Our plan was hatched and we made the drive to Rowardennan on a grey and damp Saturday morning with the aim of finding our bothy at Rowchoish. After extreme symptoms of travel sickness had eased, we threw on every waterproof item of clothing we could, double checked we had all the necessary food and equipment we’d need to stay alive and set off along the West Highland Way.
The trail from Rowardennan began with a confronting granite statue framing the view north of Loch Lomond. Unfortunately for us, we could barely see 100m across the Loch let alone to the other end of it but with time fast approaching midday, we had a hut to hunt.
The sound of crashing waterfalls, their smaller trickling counterparts weaving through the land either side of our footpath provided plenty of sensory overload for the walk. Lorna taught us the different varieties of trees along the the Way before prompting us to collect dry dead wood for the upcoming roaring fire. Given it was wet (and had been for some days before), dry wood was hard to come by but necessary for keeping us warm later on. A dry bag became a fuel bag.
Despite the colours of Autumn being dulled by the low cloud and drizzle, it was a treat to be in the great outdoors with even greater friends. With mountains on my right and across the water to my left, this little world I was immersing myself in for the weekend felt surreal in that it’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. The Peak District for all its beauty is dwarfed by the Highland peaks and natural Lochs, yet there’s more than enough room in my heart for both.
Soon enough, we reached a wooded headland along the coast of Loch Lomond where we knew we’d find the bothy. Our first lesson of the weekend: write down the grid reference. It was a case of bypassing some mossy derelict buildings, wading through a plethora of boggy ground under the towering trees and eventually a cleared path directly off the West Highland Way appeared beneath our feet with two stone buildings a few metres away. We made it! Would there be anyone there? What if it’s full?
We edged closer and gingerly nudged the door – empty. I glanced over recent guest book entries to get an idea of who our predecessors were, Ruth pulled out the broom to make it feel a little more like home and Lorna checked out the fire situation. There was absolutely no wood to burn whatsoever so it was up to us to engage hunter-gatherer mode and get ourselves some warmth for the night. Thankfully there was a range of saws hanging on the wall to assist our efforts, so we dumped our bags and began the quest for wood both dry and big enough to feed a fire for an evening. After an hour or more wandering around trying not to lose our bearings, we returned with the fruits of our labour and set about sparking up. It eventually came about that us three independent women managed to gather enough fuel to warm five grown men and another woman for the entire evening and even left enough for the next visitors. Lorna had her heart set on going for a dip in the Loch and she’s the kind of girl who tends to follow through with what she says. I went up to my calves and couldn’t stand the pain of being in the arctic waters but Lorna went all-in, quickly followed by running out and throwing on her thermals before returning “home”.
Having never stayed in a bothy before, I wasn’t sure if there was some sort of etiquette: was everyone else waiting for us to choose where we wanted to sleep before setting down themselves? We moved our bags to the wooden platform at the end of the building so that we could guarantee we’d be next to each other at least. Hierarchy established.
Next up was the fun of cooking. A month or so prior, I’d splashed out on a lightweight stove from Alpkit which I hadn’t used until this point. A little gas leakage and I figured out on the on/off screw enough to control the flame and get some water boiling ready for our ravioli and pesto. All this washed down with a cup of soup and some Camembert we’d chucked on the fire was a real treat. There’s no need to slum it when you’re in rural Scotland in a stone hut. As is the unwritten rule, we sipped on whisky, played cards and chatted about anything and everything. Our Glaswegian comrades gave us a bit of Space Chat and explained the newest addition to the skies above us to which I exclaimed it all blows my mind.
I lost concept of time. It was either light or dark and as soon as we’d played a few rounds of Shit Head, I was ready to hit the hay only checking the time once I’d got into my sleeping bag and settled down: 21:00. I knew the next day would be tough so I was happy to lie down and relax in preparation for an early morning rise up Ben Lomond. Even though multiple entries in the guest book warned of animals foraging in the night for food, my slumber wasn’t disturbed until I woke naturally just before six chimes. I went outside to see what the weather was like and to begin boiling up some porridge.
My bothymates woke up one by one braving the cooler temperatures outside when one exclaimed, “come outside, there are six deer!” Sure enough, a beautiful herd of six stood less than 20m from our front door looking at us looking at them, likely thinking similar thoughts. This was Scotland proper and I liked it.
Pale blue signs of hope peered through the clouds as we were down by the Loch cleaning our utensils. I could’ve happily stayed there all day chatting about life past, present and future but the mountain behind was the other half of the reason we came. We said our goodbyes and retraced our steps to Rowardennan, stopping intermittently to take in the view of the crystal clear waters lapping the pebbled shores and the mountains on the other side, which were previously shrouded in the previous day’s weather. Orange, green, brown and yellow hillsides basked in the cool morning air as the sun began to beam down for what would be one of the best autumn days yet.
Lorna and I opted for punishment by taking our fully-loaded rucksacks with us up Ben Lomond, while Ruth was in hindsight a little bit more sensible: she left her sleeping gear and spare clothes in the car at the bottom! We began our ascent.
It was relentless. For every switchback we meandered, I thought there’d be a plateau to enjoy but the crowds who’d began their expenditions before us made sure we knew otherwise. Little Borrowers marched onwards and upwards allowing us to realise our fate as we inched closer to the next really tough section. Two mountain bikers hurried down the path on their bikes against all the traffic – brave not only for that fact but the rocky terrain their wheels bounced off. They made it look effortless as I turned around to continue my quest for elevation.
We passed cows (who didn’t like to be touched as Lorna found out), crows and small crowds of people who’d temporarily been defeated. I always think it’s best to plod along slowly than to march at speed and need five minute breaks every five minutes. Still, it was hard not to pause as we reached higher ground. The sun continued to beat down on the Loch, the trees gently swayed and it was hard to put into words the sights we were lucky enough to afford. My usual go-to adjectives lost meaning, superlatives not good enough so all that was left was to be silent and take it in.
Up ahead I had my eye on two dogs’ wagging tails: if they could do it, so could I. Ben Lomond has what I’d call a false summit. We got to what I thought was the top because quite a lot of people were hanging around taking photos but the actual triangulation point was another few metres up. I thought I’d take what I thought would be a quicker way around but ended up gracefully tumbling to my knees in a pile of laughter. Idiot. The others waited while I dusted myself down and lugged myself back up (don’t forget this 10kg bag I have on my back!). The closer we got to the actual summit, the happier and prouder I felt. I couldn’t contain my grin and began to feel like I’d just ticked off a major job on my to-do list and I had. This was certainly my biggest walk to date, not in distance but certainly in terms of up. Perhaps this was the beginning of the next part of my life: Mountaineer GLS.
I’ve formed a bad habit of sitting on windy ridges of hills and this was no different. We had a little picnic, admired the view and go back to work, knowing daylight would be over before we knew it thanks to the clocks going back. Instead of going down the same way we came up, we went down the Ptarmigan Path which was shorter and much steeper than what we’d just done.
If you ever want to see me quite clearly scared shitless, put me on a windy rocky outcrop and you’ll see me with a face like thunder. I have no confidence that I’ll be able to steady myself or choose the right rock to put my feet down on. Instantly, I was on my arse trailing behind Lorna and Ruth who you could easily mistake for cute little mountain goats. Soon enough, the idea of our next expedition up Tryfan was scuppered given my complete lack of experience on the rocks. Slowly but surely, I made my way down to steadier terrain and managed to bring my heart rate down enough to relax.
Still, the steep winding single-track continued to the detriment of my thigh muscles, knees and feet. I still can’t decide whether the ascent or descent was the hardest but all three of us agreed that we were in some sort of discomfort on our way to back sea level. Fell runners flew past like bounding gazelles and we feared for hikers still on their way up in the fading daylight seemingly under-prepared in their Nike trainers and t-shirts. Who am I to judge?
We disappeared into forested land and that’s when we knew we’d reached familiar territory. The path came out at a house we’d previously ambled past twice, which had an honesty box for bottles of water they were selling to those who’d fallen short in the hydration game. A few hundred metres along the West Highland Way lead us back to Rowardennan and ultimately the end of our weekend. We clung on to views of the Loch, resisting the need to get back to the car as our ETA back in Manchester was prolonged. Golden Hour has never been so rewarding: an autumnal Saturday not being able to see anything except the ground in front of us and a few metres into Loch Lomond was eclipsed by stunning clear blue skies, towering shadows of yonder mountains and a pat on the back sounded along the valley from the gentle lapping of the water.
This was the tip of the Scotland’s beautiful iceberg and I can’t wait to go back and lose myself. Being outdoors is the best therapy and allows me a kind of head space I can’t get from doing anything else. My mind wanders off alongside my body, I can forget trivial matters, I can stop over-thinking and being hard on myself. I get to climb mountains and surround myself in nature and good people. I only wish I had more time to do more, but don’t we all?