Bivvy on Ben Lomond

Although I wild camp fairly regularly, it’s ages since I’ve had a proper bivvy session, so volunteering to help marshall the SYHA charity run this weekend presented an opportunity too good to miss, especially with the weather forecast predicting a calm clear, if somewhat frosty, night.

My original plan had been to head off early enough to catch the sunset, and to this end, I decided to take some half-decent camera kit with me, rather than relying on my iPhone. Added to a sizeable load of first aid kit, spare jackets and gloves and a few other odds and ends, it meant I was carrying a fully loaded 60 litre sack, which would normally be regarded as missing the point of ‘bivvying’, where you endure the relative discomfort of sleeping al fresco in order to lighten the load on your back. In the event, I left far later than originally planned, as Mrs P has been struggling with tonsillitis all week, and looked in need of some TLC when she finished work.

Heading up the Ptarmigan Ridge in the twilight with a heavy bag and no poles was a good workout for my proprioception, although the excellent work the NTS have done on the footpath made it more straightforward than on previous trips. I’d deliberately left my poles behind on the last few trips to try and ensure that they don’t become a substitute for good balance and muscle tone. As the last of the light faded, I popped on a head torch and continued upwards, stopping to add a layer and some gloves as the stiff breeze took on a distinct ‘bite’. It’s a fairly unrelenting climb up to the lochan on the ridge, and I was keen not to arrive on top soaked with sweat, so I arrived at the lochan in a fairly leisurely 2 hours. Looking back, I could see another head torch towards the bottom of the ridge, which I guessed was my fellow marshall Andy coming up to join me for the evening.

I’ve made a bit of a game of spotting good camping/bivvying sites on previous trips up Ben Lomond, but most of the locations I had in mind for tonight’s stop were ruled out by a desire to be out of the wind, which at this height was adding a fairly hefty dose of wind chill to proceedings. The forecast northwesterly wind was swirling in from a more southerly direction, which meant looking for a suitable site on the steeper north facing slopes. Eventually I found a spot which offered good shelter, dropped my bag with my spare head torch on top as a location marker and wandered off to collect some water for a brew.

Dinner for the evening was courtesy of Mountain House; Chicken in Black Bean Sauce, which I’d not tried before and turned out to be pretty palatable as rehydrated food goes. By the time I sorted myself out with a brew and some Soreen, I could see Andy’s head torch coming towards me along the flat section of the ridge. We had a quick discussion about my initial site proposal, and after scouting about a little bit opted for a slight depression about 100 metres away which was less sheltered but considerably drier. The great thing about bivvying is that ‘getting ready for bed’ involves sticking your mat and sleeping bag inside the bivvy bag (think big sleeping bag cover like the Alpkit Hunka XL), taking your boots off and climbing into your sleeping bag – a bit of shuffling around to make sure everything is cosy and draught free and that’s you for the night.

The previous night’s cup of tea prompted me awake around 5.30am, just as the sun was rising, and I was treated to a visually stunning backdrop for my morning pee, a transcendent moment broken only by the sound of a child’s voice nearby. Any parents who get themselves out of bed before daybreak to take their kid up to meet the dawn on top of a mountain have to be applauded, and I can only apologise for marring their laudable efforts at enhancing their child’s life by our chance encounter!

Having gone to the bother of carting a camera all the way up, I felt duty bound to take a few photos, but any enthusiasm I’d had for climbing to the summit to capture the sunrise had evaporated at the thought that I’d now be stalking the family. With that task complete, it was back into the depths of my sleeping bag for another couple of hours until the sun was up enough to warm the frost off the outside of my cocoon. Breakfast involved sitting up and lighting the stove to heat water for porridge, and a cup of tea, then boots on and stuff everything into the rucksack for the short walk over to our allocated checkpoint for the race.

The rest of the day was spent ticking off the numbers of runners as they came past us at the high point of their run, giving them a bit of encouragement and making sure they followed the markers as they went ‘off piste’ down towards Cailness and the remainder of their journey along the West Highland Way to Inversnaid.

With the last of the runners past us, we were able to relax in the warmth of the sun until they’d cleared the next checkpoint, at which point our day was done. Andy opted to head for the summit of Ben Lomond, while I chose to head back down the ridge with Craig, who’d been manning one of the lower checkpoints and had swept up behind the last runners to join us. Dropping back down the mountain to Rowardennan on a warm sunny day is always a bit of a shock to the system as you encounter the crowds and the overwhelming aroma of massed disposable BBQs, but it’s hard to begrudge folk the chance to be out enjoying themselves in a setting this soul-warming when you’ve fallen asleep with the Great Bear as your nightlight.

I wonder if we could get a glass roof for the bedroom…