It’s a long 5-hour drive after work on Friday up past Loch Lomond, but our Ben Vorlich Scotland expedition was exactly what I thought I needed after my week at work. It was tough though, the plan goes to pot, we ended up traipsing through a bog well into the night, and I picked up a tick somewhere you don’t want any insect going!
The plan seemed quite straight forward. My mate had plotted a route over Ben Vorlich from Loch Earn, to then summit another couple of Munros before circling around through valleys.
This weekend took me to my limit, though, and we didn’t complete the planned route. The weather turned on us, and I realised that I need to find out once and for all what is wrong with my body.
A nice weekend in Scotland
After finishing a big job on Friday, I needed to let my hair down. We’d planned an expedition which would start with a hammock camp in the forest, summiting three Munros and include a wild camp out in the wild highlands of Scotland. You can’t get a better weekend than that, so I thought.
I picked up Darren, a hiking buddy, and drove into the night, past Loch Lomond, then for another hour up smaller country roads to Loch Earn, seeing the silhouettes of armies of pine. As we parked up, there were masses of people by the loch, fishing, camping on the beach and wandering around.
Walking down the road, it was like Saturday night in a small town, people drinking and playing music around campfires. I dreaded to think of the aftermath we would encounter on Sunday when we returned. The law changed this year in Scotland, relating to wild camping. It’s the only country in the UK where wild camping is entirely legal, except for certain areas that this law now covers. Loch Earn is one of these areas; I’ll come back to that in another post.
Our route was to take us well out of the way of the party people, into wild parts of the Scottish Highlands.
The rucksack was full and heavy as we would first hike out into the forest for a wild hammock camp before heading into the hills. Parking south of Loch Earn, we soon found the track from the road that runs alongside the Ardvorlich Burn.
Burn is the word the Scots use for a stream or beck.
There are a couple of lovely waterfalls along here, we pass them and find a footbridge across the burn, less than a kilometre from the road. Swallowed up in a pine forest, it’s about midnight; we make our way through the woods a couple of hundred metres away from the trail to set up camp.
Midges in Scotland
If having a hard day at work, driving five hours and making your way to the hills on a two-day expedition isn’t tough enough, the midges in Scotland make it so. I’ve tried all sorts of sprays, including the Lifesystems one from GoOutdoors and they’ve just not worked. The only thing that makes a dent is Avon Skin So Soft; it’s the best midge repellent I’ve used. If you ask on outdoors groups, this is what they recommend all around the world, it’s not perfect, but it certainly deters the little bastards.
Hammock camping in the woods
Being careful to raise the stoves on a stone, we get some water boil while we tie our DD Hammock tarps up. Then I string up my DD Frontline hammock and Daz, his Hennessy hammock. The boiled water goes into our freeze-dried food pouches, and efficiently get our gear organised while it cooks.
I’ve decided this will never happen again, setting up what should be a nice relaxing camp, quickly, getting to sleep as soon as possible our goal. Wild camping should be an adventure, absolutely, but for me, it should also be fun and should take your mind off the madness of life back home running a business.
Once in the hammock, fed and full, it’s too stressful to drop off quickly. I meditate on the twit-twoo of a couple of tawny owls calling to each other, the female ke-wick followed instantly by the male’s hoo-hoo-oo. It turns one o’clock before I fade into unconsciousness.
Next morning, however, feels nicer. Breakfast takes a back-burner, so I chill out for an hour until the sun and my companion rise. It’s beautiful lounging in a hammock in the forest, early in the morning.
The sun finds its way through the gaps, casting golden patches around the forest floor. There’s a woodpecker up there somewhere, wrapping his tongue around his brain to avoid brain-damage, knocking his beak against the tree searching for his morning feed.
We take our time packing, pushing the hammocks and tarps into a small black bag to stash in the trees. There’s no point in carrying them around Vorlich when we can pick them up on the way back. My bag’s a good kilo lighter and the normal wild camping weight. We check around for any bits we may have dropped last night and set off south.
It’s quite a straight forward hike from here up Ben Vorlich, the path is well worn and marked on the Ordnance Survey map with a black dotted line, a physical path. The weather’s not great, but there are still a fair few walkers out. We meet and chat with a couple coming down after a camp up high, but most are ascending. Having had a rough night, we take our time, and it’s not long before keen Munro baggers are passing us. I’m walking my own walk.
Ben Vorlich summit
By the time we get to the top, after a steep final kilometre, the weather is crap. The cloud is low, and visibility is down well below fifty metres. Cloud is not the problem, of course; the wind is cruel up here at 984m (3228ft). I do love wind though; it invigorates me, we sit by the summit trig for a while munching on a couple of protein bars.
I’m shattered. This week, the drive, hastily camping and the ascent to Ben Vorlich summit has wiped me out. I look at the route marked on my OS map and wonder if I have the energy to stick to the plan. I’ve not been diagnosed yet with M.E., I’m spending five days a week at the gym pumping iron and swimming, trying to fight the fatigue and although I’m strong, I’m also weak. Mountain ascents destroy me.
The two of us keep on south-west now off the summit to escape the weather, there’s nothing until we reach the col on the way to Stuc a’Chroin where we shoo a couple of sheep from a small boulder. We saw the steep ascent of our next Munro for a second on the way down, but we’ll never lay eyes on it again. Sitting, pawing the map, we consider our way forward.
The plan goes to pot
At the time, it seemed like a good idea to descend into a valley east of Stuc a’Chroin for a long walk around the base of Ben Vorlich and up to a saddle east of its summit. On the map, it looks like an easy 5km valley walk.
So that’s the original plan out of the window.
Gleann an Dubh Choirein
We follow the burn from the head of the valley directly south into a long valley called Gleann an Dubh Choirein. The wind just doesn’t seem to be dropping, it’s pushing up the valley from the south and will be in our face until we reach the end of the long spur coming off Ben Vorlich.
We find a huge boulder, left behind by glacial activity 15000 years ago. Bleaberry is abundant, and I take advantage. There are no sheep here at all so I pick as many as I can carry and feast on them when we hide behind our boulder.
I need a cup of tea. The water’s freezing and hard to swallow, but I need hydrating. Tea tastes so good in this weather, a comforting luxury. The brew accompanies another cereal bar and some Dairy Milk. You can’t get enough calories in you when you’re climbing mountains in terrible weather, but it’ll end up being way too long before I have a proper meal.
The hiking is hard going through the valley with no sign of footfall. We’re clambering over boulders and wading through tall grass. Gleann an Dubh Choirein is boggy, but we skirt along the side of Vorlich away from the river and water. Then we see a stag on the spur coming off the mountain. One silhouette on the ridge, large antlers and it’s looking clocked us. It’s probably a kilometre away, but I’m not even sure if we should be scared.
As we approach, me trying to get my phone from my trousers under my waterproofs, it scarpers, setting off an avalanche of stampeding hoofs across the hillside. A hundred deer appear and race out of the valley into a large open space we can’t see.
We run up the side of the spur to get a better view, and all we see is a scattering of dots settling into a trot.
Daz and I are training to be mountain leaders. We're both well prepared to spend a couple of nights in the middle of nowhere in an emergency. We're really pushing the envelope with expeditions so that we're well prepared for assessment. Sometimes, you go out on a walk to camp and wish you were just back at the car. Maybe the weather's horrible or you're simply knackered and fed up. Whatever I'm doing, even taking the kids out now for a little walk to the beach, I have an emergency shelter for the family, first aid and enough food for a day.
As time passes and the valley seems to have grown in size, we’re walking and walking, and hardly seem to be getting any closer to a spot we can camp.
Allt an Dubh Choirein
Down the bottom of the valley, getting round the spur from this mountain takes forever. There are two rivers now, becoming one. The burn we ate at, up at the head of the valley has turned into a vast flowing river. There’s now a river, Allt an Dubh Choirein, that comes flowing off the other side of the spur and Meall na Fearna, Ben Vorlich’s neighbour to the East.
Allt is Gaelic for a water with a current, bigger than a ditch but smaller than a river.
We must follow this Allt up to its start, hike up to the rise above the two neighbours and hope that the bog subsides in our favour. We simply can’t camp here; the wet ground would suck the life from us.
Hours later, we’re approaching the head of this valley and I can just about see the odd sign of water streaming down the side of the hill across from us. Nature is stunning in its simplest form. Water, our life-force, trickles down a hill, meeting with more and more trickles, gathering to form a gang, all enthused, raging and excited, heading to a river for the open sea miles away. It humbles the seer if only he takes time to look.
My head is pounding. I’ve not drunk enough, although there’s an abundance of water eager to fill my boots. I’m not nurished enough, although my bag has plenty of food. I’ve been walking in the rain and gales for hours longing for a good feed.
Finding a camp site
We must find a dry place to pitch soon. We’ve both camped in a bog a number of times and just know it’ll be unpleasant, to say the least. Taking a seat, we get out our Scotland map. The hause, between Vorlich and a subsidiary peak of Meall na Fearna flattens for about 600 m. There must be at least a small bit we can camp on.
We’re only 400 m away but have to climb up by the brook. It’s steep for weary legs but I’m determined to get my MLD Trailstar up and start cooking. We both scoop up a couple of litres of water from the stream into Sawyer pouches for camp and plod on.
The perpetual bog goes on but eventually there’s a clearing. We collapse on the grass, drenched and exhausted.
Wild camping on the col
Erecting the Trailstar in the garden takes all of four, maybe five minutes; I’ve got it off to a tee. However, when you feel this bad, and the weather’s determined to chase you off the hill, it feels like an impossible task you need to put off.
I jump up, inauthentic enthusiasm grabs ahold of me and shout, ‘Right, come on, let’s get this bastard camped!’. Daz laughs, ‘Let’s do this.’
We’re sheltered within ten minutes. Another ten minutes and boiling water means we’re one step closer to eating the greatest meal we’ve ever eaten. Within half an hour, my bed is ready to hug me warm for the night, and my home-made dehydrated casserole is cooked to perfection, I brought a portion for laddo to try out as well.
Food, water and shelter can transform a man in the mountains. I once took a group out for a relatively short hike up a couple of fells, one woman confided in me that she was freezing. She'd started shivering, but she was savvy enough to tell me early; it's the first sign of hypothermia. I announce to the group that we should take a break from the hail and got them pitching my emergency shelter, the MLD Trailstar. They focussed on the project at hand, under a little instruction, and the five of us comfortably moved in. I got my stove out to make the woman a brew, and we all had some food. In half an hour we were all happy as can be.
Misery breeds misery, and I think the best way out is to plan some small wins. In our case, making shelter was a significant effort but being out of the wind and rain transformed our spirit. Knowing that lighting the stove would bring warmth and nutrition was uplifting. The comfort of knowing that your bed is ready for you and food is on its way feels like you’re almost there. You get there step by step, and it feels great.
After supper, we have a wander, take some photos and enjoy the hillside cheered up.
It’s not long before I’m in my little pod, worn out but snug. I float off into sleep and dream of a herd of deer close up, accepting and peaceful, our two groups in harmony on the fellside.
Waking up on a mountain
I sleep for ten hours straight, the stress drifting from me; and wake slowly, smiling as I realise where we are and the little adventure that got us here.
Early morning up in the mountains, not a solitary soul to be seen, there’s nothing better to do than take a turn of the immediate area. Dew clings to everything above ground level and a thin mist shrouds the saddle, growing thicker up the domineering crags.
My water’s boiling and I see the steam billowing from the pot. Returning to my rudimental shelter, the lump under the other one stirs and makes a sign that there’s still life in there.
In the cold, damp, still air, I sit, tranquil. A cup of tea hydrates and warms me while a simple porridge with honey soaks up the hot water. The silence is beautiful.
There’s no hurry.
There are no demands.
I just sit, and meditate.
When you let go and enjoy nothing, it’s sweet.
Ben Vorlich adventure over
I enjoy packing and putting my little mountain hotel on my back.
Covering ground that’s boggy, and the map isn’t detailed enough to tell you how tough the terrain is, you make slow progress. We’re in no rush.
Glen Vorlich is a valley running along the northern spur of Ben Vorlich, down to Loch Earn. Ardvorlich Burn meanders down the route of least resistance. There's a black dotted line suggesting that a path is at your disposal; it's not quite as easy going as the map suggests.
We get back into the woods late in the morning to pick up the hammocks and stroll back to the van with a little sunshine finding its way through the branches after a weekend or torrent.
Ben Vorlich bagged, not the way we had planned but lessons learned, experience gained, one step closer to assessment; and feeling good.
The tick? Well, I’ll leave that your imagination.
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