Ben Vorlich is one of those hills everyone should climb once.
If Ben Lomond is the magnet which attracts walks to the hills over Loch Lomond, Ben Vorlich is it’s polar opposite. No easy path here, from whatever angle. Instead it repels all but the most determined with it’s combination of steep sides, crags, bog and rolling hummocks combining to defend it’s summit in depth. Add to that it’s own weather system which seems to consist of constant murk and wetness, it certainly defies the casual walker. Separated from Ben Lomond by a thin strip of water, it could be a thousand miles away for all I could see on my most recent visit.
So having done so once, why go again a second time? Simple. It’s to prepare for my third time…
I am trying to introduce midweek walks as part of the new winter programme for Glasgow HF Outdoor Club, and this is the first on the cards. I’ve climbed the hill from Ardlui, but last time I had returned to the same point. This time I had planned to carry on out through Glen Loin to Arrochar. However plans don’t always go to, er, plan…
Many years ago I had been asked to do some map reading training for a few friends. All had went well until the final night training exercise. I had planned a simple route, using easily defined landmarks and handrails, but having had no chance to look at the ground it had been done as a “map-recce”. All was going well into the message came in over the radio that one of the checkpoints couldn’t be reached. “Why?” I asked. The answer was unexpected. Almost the whole area I had selected had been fenced off, and was now an open cast quarry. Endex.
I was fairly sure that Ben Vorlich was still there. I’d have heard if it wasn’t. The route beyond though, I wasn’t certain of. So having finally got a day off, I headed up to Ardlui. The forecast was for light rain later, and on arrival the sky was clear. Ish. Game on.
Last time I’d gone up by Garristuck farm, but there’s now a sign directing walkers further down the road. It’s a quagmire here, a sign of things to come. Once I’d made my way through the maze of fences I was on the open hill above Garristuck. If the fences are the hills first line of defence, the second line is the chest high bracken. There’s no real path here, the odd quad track and some deer or fox tracks. I was making decent progress and then had to thrash my way through the bracken, with it’s hidden brambles ready to rip holes in your clothes. I picked my way up through the crags, finding a half decent howff hidden away behind the bracken, before finally dragging myself free onto more open ground.
There’s a series of smaller craggy hillocks to negotiate before coming to the foot of Stob an Fhithich. By this time the rain had rolled in to assist the defences which had already fallen. Goretex and Paramo on, I was sweating buckets. One way or another, I was going to get wet. With conditions being so vile I skirted round this rocky peak, and headed up towards Stob nan Coinnich Bhacain. By now there was no path of any kind, and I pulled myself upwards into the gloom. Mossy and steep, I counted off the distance by the metre. I used the GPS on the compass to set me off on the right bearing, picking out intermediate points through the grey and soon I had come across a small cairn, marking the 647m point. The route dog legs slightly here and with zero visibility it would be easy to follow off on what appears to be a natural line which leads onto steeper ground. I used the compass and set off. And within a few minutes visibility had cleared and I could see the way beyond, leading up to Ben Vorlich. Observed by some precariously positioned sheep I descended towards boggier ground. I quickly found a well defined path, only to quickly lose it again. Some Munros have paths like Somme trenches running up them. The lack of one here demonstrated that this wasn’t the route of choice for most baggers.
I continued upwards, counting off the distance until finally I found the first three tops, this one marked with a cairn. The hill has a long thin summit, which I recall well from my last visit, which is just as well as I couldn’t see a thing today. My waterproof jacket, previously discarded, was now thrown back on, along with gloves and hat. Having lost the shelter of the bulk of the hill I was exposed to the full effect of the “light rain”. I headed south to the middle summit, marked with a cairn, touched it and lifted a stone which went in my bag. My original summit photo is lost in the mists of time, and there would be none taken today. It had taken a full four hours to get to here, and I’d managed it despite the weather, but with the wind and rain it was just impossible to set the camera up.
It was at this point I realised I wasn’t sure how to get off the hill. I was fairly sure the path led off near the trig point, so I headed along to it, and found it easily. Panic over, I followed it as it heads south east for over a kilometre before switching and dropping steeply, through a jumble of misty crags, skirting nasty looking fissures in the rock which must have seen some poor buggers fall in over the years.
It was only as I neared the track that the cloud parted and I could see the Sloy Dam. While the cloud may have eased off the rain hadn’t, and I struggled on down, at one point slipping and managing to arrest my fall with my pole, which bent in the process.
I reached the track and took shelter behind a boulder. Quickly rearranging my gear, I grabbed a snack, then headed off along the tarmac into the driving rain. I passed a fairly substantial bridge which I recognised from previous visits to Ben Vane. Confusingly there is a signpost here indicating Arrochar, however that takes you to the bealach between Narnain and the Cobbler.
Another 700m or so saw a path diverge to Coiregrogan, the route I wanted through Glen Loin. I paused in the shelter of the trees, watching brown trout under the bridge as they lay in wait for what was washed downstream towards them. I couldn’t stay long though, and was soon on the go again, hood up and face into the rain. On a nicer day this would be a pleasant walk, despite the pylons. Today however, it was head down and go. I did notice a clearing full of bivvy shelters, perhaps a local drinking den. Once upon a time a site like this this may have been cheap accommodation for workers on the Sloy Dam. I doubt they’d have lived on Pot Noodles though…
The path winds down through some old natural woodland towards Arrochar. Under an old piece of wriggly tin I found a shrew, safe from the rain and the attentions of the owls which screeched as I passed under their roost.
A minor path diverges off just after Stronafyne, and at the path marker is a printed sign asking people to protest against plans to turn the area into a quarry. Perhaps my instincts weren’t so far wrong after all. Within a few minutes I was at the head of Loch Long, watching three large mullet cruising down the burn towards the loch. They headed into deep water, I headed for the pub. After 13.5 miles I was soaked from head to foot, so I saw no reason why the inside shouldn’t be as wet as the outside. As I sat in the pub and watched the cloud part over Ben Narnain, a thought occurred to me. I have to do this again in three weeks…