Mountain Climbing in Scotland
While biking has been my favorite form of exercise for some time, I thought that I would add some variety to my routine. Some might call that “cross training” but I decided to set a “stretch goal” and have a go at mountain climbing.
A few years ago I met Roger Barr from Scotland. He hikes for fun – just a bit farther than most people. One of Roger’s hobbies is “Munro Bagging.” A “Munro” is a mountain in Scotland with a height of over 3,000 ft. There are 283 such mountains in Scotland. Several years ago, Roger set out to climb all of them, an accomplishment shared by a rather small group of people. He recorded his first Munro in 1994 by ascending Aonach Eagach Ridge, the most dangerous ridge walk in Scotland. He achieved his goal in 2006 by reaching the peak of Ladhar Bheinn. In addition, he takes “wee walks” which often consist of several hundred miles at one time. This summer he will complete the ”Coast to Coast Walk“ covering 192 miles and spanning the width of England. He will also finish the last section of a route from the most southern point in England to the most northern spot in Scotland. To say the least, Roger knows a bit about hillwalking.
At one point I asked Roger to take me up a Munro. He agreed, but the time and place were left open ended. In February, 2012, I travelled to London on business. I saw this as the opportunity to take that hike. After wrapping up the meetings, I took the train from London to Glasgow and spent the weekend with Roger and his wife, Margaret. One of the items on our itinerary was a hike in the Trossachs and a climb up Ben A’an. While this “mini-mountain” stands 1,491 ft. in height and doesn’t qualify for a Munro, this was my best chance at fulfilling my dream of doing some serious hillwalking with Roger.
The day before striking out for Ben A’an, Roger and I visited the ruins of Bothwell Castle which is located on the River Clyde in South Lanarkshire. While it was enjoyable to tour the castle, I’m convinced Roger used the short walk around the castle as a way to test my hiking ability. It appears that I passed the test, since we loaded up our gear and headed out to Ben A’an on Sunday morning. In less than an hour we arrived at the car park. Roger had expected only a handful of vehicles, but a break in the weather brought quite a few other hikers out to enjoy the day. We laced up our hiking boots, donned a few layers of jumpers (sweaters outside of Scotland), stowed away some snacks, and were on our way. Roger’s wife, Margaret, joined us.
Immediately after passing the entry sign, the trail became steep. The first section consists of packed dirt with exposed tree roots criss-crossing the path. Margaret charged ahead at her own pace, but Roger followed me and provided a steady stream of encouragement. Several times he told me, “This is not a race, go at your own pace,” or “If you get tired, feel free to stop,” or “Watch your feet, choose the best route for you.” Between the excitement of actually being on this hike and getting used to the activity, I quickly began to perspire and question whether I was actually capable of this adventure. But I pressed on. As I’ve mentioned in relation to cycling, I dropped down into my “Little Engine That Could gear” and fully committed to making it to the summit – even on my hands and knees if that’s what it took.
The first two-thirds of the hike is through the woods. The entire area was absolutely gorgeous, with various shades of green seen in every direction since a blanket of moss covering many of the rocks and trees. There were numerous waterfalls along the way, fed by springs near the top of the mountain. It was interesting to see snow on the ground throughout the woods, but very little at the higher elevations.
Stopping every once in a while to take pictures was a pleasant relief from the attention required to execute the climb safely. I was very glad that I had borrowed a pair of hiking sticks from Roger. They helped me maintain my balance and provided the necessary support in some tricky sections.
A bridge crossed the stream and was a point of reference that we’d made it one third of the way. Naturally it provided a photo opportunity, as well as a way to catch my breath and pause to appreciate the beauty all around. It also was an indication that the trail was about to get steeper. Just past the bridge we were treated to a view of Loch Achray.
Every once in a while, the mountain offered some forgiveness and flattened out for a bit. In one section we waited for some hikers who were descending. A woman in the group had slipped while crossing a bog, a particularly muddy section, and was covered in “gunk.” We chuckled a bit after they were out of earshot about her plight.
Soon after we were afforded our first view of the Ben A’an Summit through the trees, a view that would be impossible during the summer when full foliage was in place. We paused at the base of the summit to take photos and enjoy a nibble of trail mix and other snacks.
At this point, Roger informed me that we were already two-thirds of the way to the summit. I was feeling strong and knew that I’d already accomplished a great deal in reaching this point. Some of my friends, perhaps even Roger, had doubts about my ability to navigate this climb but I was determined to see it through. After all, the best view is from the top, so we pressed forward.
The summit still looked like a long way off, but we were all ready for the remaining challenge. The biggest difference was the fact that the boulders were larger and the height of each stepping stone was noticeably higher than the lower sections back in the woods. Some people call Ben A’an the “giant staircase.” I was about to find out just what they meant.
My focus was on placing my feet carefully to avoid toppling over backwards. For the most part, we were above the snow, but began to find ice along the way. In spite of the being cautious and watching for ice, I felt my pace quicken the closer that we got to the top. I was actually going to do this! I was literally being pushed along by an adrenaline rush. We were now with 10 feet of the summit and the last stretch was solid ice. Roger planted his foot sideways for me to use as an anchor, but the slippery slope kept me from making any progress. We looked around and chose to scramble across a patch of heather in order to reach to summit. As I’d predicted earlier, I was bound and determined to complete this hike - even on my hands and knees – which proved to be necessary.
To say that the view was spectacular would be an understatement. Even though there were at least a dozen people at the top, everyone treated this area like a shrine – not a word was spoken, everyone was taking in the splendor before them. It was utterly peaceful. The brief looks that were exchanged with others told volumes in the shared experience. We had each done something very special that day. While this hike wasn’t the most arduous considering the many other mountains in Scotland and peaks much higher in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, I had accomplished a major goal with this mountain, on this day, with my best friend. That made me very happy. (continued below photos)
It began to get very cold at the top. While I would have enjoyed more time on the summit, Roger urged us to begin making our way back down. Of course, there was only one way to go down, the same way that we climbed up.
I quickly discovered that walking down on a mountain was much more strenuous than walking up. It simply puts a lot more pressure on your quads. Roger told me that my bike riding probably helped me a great deal on this hike, but the return was a challenge. We were quickly passed by others.
As we returned to the forest, we approached that bog that had caused the one lady to slip. I was commenting on the fact that while it was a muddy area, there were sturdy stones all along the way. Except for that next step – the one where my right leg sunk in to the muck above my knee. No problem, right? Simply lift my leg out and go on. Except that I couldn’t move my leg and any attempt seemed to be pulling me in deeper like quicksand. Roger came to my rescue and was able to extract me from the bog without dislocating my shoulder. This scene caused Margaret to howl with laughter. Kind of funny, unless you’re the one stuck in the mud! We did all share quite a chuckle about that for the rest of the hike. (story continued after these photos)
This day was a great adventure. While I hope to climb Ben A’an again one day, or tackle some other mountains, my first scramble to the top will be a vivid memory for the rest of my life.
We certainly didn’t set any speed records that day. I later learned that the actual distance from the car park to the summit is 1.25 miles, so we hiked approximately 2.5 miles. However, when you add in nearly 1,400 feet of vertical gain and that much again in the descent, it was a rather respectable trek. I may have been the last one off the mountain that day, but I left it with a sense of pride and satisfaction. I am honored to have completed something that few get a chance to even attempt. Not bad for a 60 year old who has lived with Parkinson’s Disease for the past two years. Every Victory Counts! and this one meant a great deal to me. To learn more about living well with Parkinson’s and the wonderful work being done by the Davis Phinney Foundation, click on this link to the Victory Crew.
Video Bonus – If you want to see a really crazy way that one cyclist conquered this mountain, follow this link – “Joe Barnes rides Ben A’an.”