My father was one of five, three brothers and two sisters who grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, between the wars. Over the past 16 years, they have passed away one by one, my father among them. The last to go – living in a home for veterans, and days short of his 90th birthday – was Uncle Peter. He died on January 3rd this year, a dozen miles and a full life away from the tenement building where he was born. As I packed to travel for Peter’s funeral, I hesitated about taking my hiking gear to Scotland. It would be troublesome to gather together and squeeze into my suitcase. The weather would probably be lousy. The days would certainly be short. But death has a way of reminding us to take our chances, and finally I put into my case what I thought I would need to climb a hill or walk a glen in the days after the funeral ceremony and the family visits.
When the time came, I drove through darkness for two hours to reach the trailhead for Ben Lomond soon after sunrise, which is to say about 9 a.m. Ben Lomond is a mountain 30 miles northwest of Glasgow, 3,196 feet high. If you like Scottish folk songs, you’ll know that it has “steep, steep sides”. I had no idea if I would be able to climb them. The trail began on the shore of Loch Lomond, right on its “bonnie, bonnie banks”. There was little snow here, but I’d driven through plenty of thick, wet flakes on the road from Glasgow. Sure enough, by the time I had climbed a half-mile up a forest path, there were six inches of watery accumulation underfoot. But a view was opening up too, of the long, gray loch disappearing into mist between steep, forested slopes. After a mile and a 650-foot ascent, the path left the trees and set out across open moor. There were black-faced sheep here, and the snow was up to their bellies. As I went higher, a wind began to shove at my back. I could see it ripping snow off the summits ahead. Beneath my feet, it had almost stripped the moor of snow in some places, and buried it deep in others. It was difficult to tell these places apart. I walked confidently on solid ground, then suddenly sank up to my knees. It was like missing a step going down a staircase, except this step was 18 inches high.
I came to a gully in a slope high above a thinly wooded glen. I would rest here, I thought, out of the wind. As I entered the gully, I sank again into the snow. But this time I went in as far as my upper thighs. Down below, my boots sank into a peaty sludge, and I felt cold water dampen my socks. I heaved myself onto firmer ground and moved farther into the gully, trying to take careful steps. But after two or three, I went in up to my thighs again, and began to assemble in my mind the reasons why this place might be far enough up the mountain. The path up Ben Lomond, I have read, is excellent, but today I could not see it. Would I spend the rest of the climb dropping into deep snow every few paces? I’d soon be exhausted if I did. The forecast had been for decent weather until after dark, but decent only in comparison with the blizzards to come. Going onto a summit that might become fogged in or whipped by snow showers would be one thing on a visible path; venturing onto a trackless summit, quite another.
Above the gully, I sat on a snow-covered tussock, my back to the wind. I was, perhaps, 1,100 feet up the mountain, a third of the way. Far enough, I decided. I was at this windswept place because I had wanted to climb to a view, but I had chosen this particular mountain because it seemed to fit with my reason for being in Scotland. Three years before, when I last visited Uncle Peter, he had brought out a picture of himself on top of Ben Lomond years before. There were patches of snow around him, so it may have been spring. Well, he had made it and I had not. But when I turned around to look back the way I had come, I felt rewarded. Although freezing rain stung my eyes and the sky was filled with thick, gray cloud, somewhere in the distance the sun must have been peeking through, because the southern end of Loch Lomond, beyond the island of Inchlonaig, was illuminated in an exquisite feeble yellow.
Down from the mountain, I hiked a section of Scotland’s best-known long-distance path. The West Highland Way – 96 miles from the edge of Glasgow to Fort William – ran here close to the loch shore, almost at sea level and free of deep snow. Even so, it was a chilling, slushy outing, which I shared only with groups of foraging wild goats. Two days later, I drove to another long-distance path. The Southern Upland Way traverses Scotland’s southern hills east-west. I walked just four or five of its 212 miles, though in both directions. I don’t have the space to tell you about that hike now, but the sun came out, the path was dry, and there was about the right amount of snow to cheer up the hills without impeding my progress through them. You can take both hikes via my Ben Lomond / Southern Upland Way album, no login needed.