On 6 October 2018 I completed a task I set myself three years ago, climb one mountain 100 times. Being a sensible chap (although this point is debatable – what sensible person climbs the same mountain 100 times in 3 years), I picked a small one, Ben A’an in The Trossachs. Last year I had set myself the objective of climbing Ben A’an my age but had to give up at 51 after an accident on the mountain (see later).
Why Ben A’an? Well its close, only 15 minutes drive away, and it’s not particularly high. It takes a fit person about 60 minutes to get to the top. It’s also one of the best viewpoints in Scotland with almost 360 degree views, west to the mountains of the Arrochar Alps and Ben Lomond, north to Ben More and the Cruach Ardrain, west to Ben Ledi, Stirling and Edinburgh in the far distance, south to Ben Venue (the mountain of the goblins) with Loch Katrine spread out below. At 10:30am every morning you can watch the steamship Sir Walter Scott departing Katrine Pier down below and cruising on the loch, with the ripples of its wake creating fascinating patterns. For a landscape photographer – what’s not to like?
The Sir Walter Scott cruising on Loch Katrine
But, and there is always a but, anyone who had climbed Ben A’an will tell you it’s incredibly steep in places. It always amuses me when I read several Facebook and other social media posts by those who say it’s easy. Mountains, even small ones, are never easy. Each is a challenge for someone.
The struggle to climb Ben A’an begins as you step out of your car and are immediately faced with a steep lung bursting climb. There is no ‘ease yourself into it gradually’ like many of the Glencoe Munros or even Ben Nevis. You will likely be puffing after 200 metres unless you are very fit.
Winter wild camp
Ben A’an is known as the ‘mountain in miniature’. In total over the years I have climbed over 45,000 metres of it, nearly 150,000 feet. By climbing Ben A’an 100 times in three years I’ve climbed over 7 times the base to peak height of Everest. I would love to climb Everest, but at my age that dream seems out of reach.
I have climbed Ben A’an in 38 minutes and arrived (collapsed) at the top in a sweating mess or taken a leisurely two hours to climb it while guiding my wife and her girlfriends on their first hill climb. I once met a young guy who ran up and down the mountain twice in the time I took to climb up and down once. I seriously gave thought to tripping him up as he ran down the steep rocks for the second time. But he was a really nice guy who stopped to swap stories. I hated him (kidding).
I’ve climbed it 9 times with my daughter Eilidh, 5 times with my son Calum and 3 times with my wife Ann. I've taken my brother’s six year old grandson up (kids seem to have springs in their legs). I’ve wild camped on top in a winter storm where the tent got covered in snow or watched spectacular sunrises and sunsets from the summit. I’ve been soaked to the skin in driving rain and been sunburned in 30 degree temperatures. I’ve seen a perfect ‘fog bow’ wreath the summit as sunrise struck the mountain top in mid-winter with my Brocken Spectre (mountain spectre) projected into the middle. I’ve watched eagles and ospreys swoop round the mountain top. Each experience was unique and different, some bad, most good, many excellent. One of my photos from the summit even reached the finals of Mountain Photo of the Year. It didn’t win - but to be honest there were better photos (I didn’t even vote for my own photo).
Fog Bow and Brocken Spectre
I’ve met hundreds, even thousands, of people on the mountain, all very friendly, always willing to say hello, many to exchange stories and (usually) complain about how steep the climb was. I’ve met a 50-member choir all the way from Holland who sang hymns on the top, 200 members of a Mosque from Glasgow on a charity climb, including women in full Burqa (it’s a great solution for the problem of the Scottish midge when you think of it – and you are now definitely thinking about it). Saw a family trying to push a pram up the near vertical rock steps (strange) and a guy climbing it in stiletto heels for a bet (weird – they didn’t match the rest of his outfit – white stilettos with camouflage trousers, for goodness sake, some people have no taste or coordination). All stories to be filed away and recounted with pleasure and occasional amusement.
I fell 100 feet down the mountain, with my knee which should bend backwards bending forwards, rupturing my medial and cruciate ligaments along with various other cracked and damaged bits and bobs. My own stupid fault, I was paying attention to getting the photograph and not where I was standing. I patched myself up and managed to limp off. The upside was I protected my camera equipment which survived undamaged – always look on the bright side. In July this year, one week after knee surgery I climbed it for the 97th time. For me Ben A’an is not a ‘glass half full’, it’s a glass overflowing.
The history and technical bit. Ben A’an is actually not called Ben A’an, its true name is Am Binnean. It was converted (anglicised) into the English by Sir Walter Scott in his famous book The Lady of the Lake. Am Binnean meaning the pinnacle or small pointed peak. When you see the top of the mountain from down below you can understand why it was referred to as the pinnacle. If you stood on top of Ben A’an in the 16th and 17th centuries you may have seen the war galleys (birlinns) of Clan MacGregor sailing up and down the loch. The famous outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor was born at Glengyle on the shores of Loch Katrine. Indeed, Glengyle House still stands on the shores of the loch, which are dotted with MacGregor graveyards. Rob Roy himself is buried not far away at Balquhidder. His grave can be seen to this day.
The area around Ben A’an is steeped in history. As late as the 17th century goblins lived in caves on Ben Venue, the mountain opposite. Having climbed and descended that mountain several times in the dark, I was disappointed to never meet one. Maybe my appearance scared them off?
To this day, the Urisks – the Faeries of the Forest, can be glimpsed in the early morning mists that roll across and down the slopes of Ben A’an by those who have ‘the sight’. Of course, it might have been the wild mountain goats that live on the mountain and in the surrounding area – there are about 500 of them. But I believe I’ve seen the Faerie folk.
Back in the real world, the normal route up Ben A’an is from the pay and display car park by the shore of Loch Achray (a great location in the Autumn for morning mists… and Faerie spotting). From there a signed path heads straight uphill before picking up the course of a burn (stream), the Allt Inneir, and heading over a bridge up to a low saddle.The path up to the top crosses the saddle heading northwest before picking up the course of the Allt na Cailliche (stream)and following it steeply uphill by a series of stone and carved rock steps below the crags of Ben A'an (a grade 2 rock climb). Close to the source of the burn the path swings westwards behind the top of the hill from which it is a short climb to the summit, the destination for most hikers. From there you enjoy one of the best views in Scotland (unless the weather is ‘dreich’ (miserable) and you are ‘drookit’ (soaked). There is an alternative route up the hill which is via a steep and very muddy path through the forest. I’ve used it several times.
I climb mountains for photography not to ‘collect them’ or tick them off a list. I have enormous respect and admiration for Munro Baggers, those dedicated and hardy people who climb the mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet, all 282 of them, but it’s not my thing. Some mountains I’ve climbed several times, some dozens, but always for photography. I’ve climbed several hundred Munros and Corbetts, but frequently the same ones. About 80 of my Munros are on Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag alone, always looking for that exceptional photo which stands out from all others.
Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain can be boring from a photography perspective, especially if walked by the tourist route. However, climbing ‘the Ben’ by the Carn Mor Dearg Arete during the night in mid-winter by the light of a head torch, using ice axe and crampons, in order to photograph the first light of the sun striking the north face of the mountain is an entirely different challenge and experience, a wee bit scary at times. No pain, no gain (is a stupid saying – I’m always in pain).
Scotland’s finest mountain (IMHO – why can’t youngsters simply say ‘in my humble opinion’ – bloomin text message generation) is Suilven in Assynt, but it’s not a Munro or even a Corbett and relatively few people climb it due to its remoteness. I’ve climbed and wild camped on top with my mate Andy Belshaw and witnessed the morning mists flowing around and over Meall Meadhonach as the first light of the sun back lights the peak, a superb experience. Sgurr na Stri on the Isle of Skye is Britain’s finest view point. But to obtain that view you need to be on top of the mountain as the dawn sun lights up the Cuillin ridge, which means carrying 25 kg of camping and photography gear over 4 hours to a very remote location (then climbing the mountain).
The 1st time
The 100th time
I frequently climb mountains in the dark, even in mid-winter. I need to be ‘up top’ half an hour before sunrise to capture that special light which happens just before and after dawn. I’ve never met anyone in the morning on the way down when I’m on my way up, it’s always me coming down when others are going up. They probably think I’m mad: they may be right.
So…. here is my question. Having climbed Ben A’an 100 times in 3 years – do I get to keep it?