Turning sixty

never be more than two of cold, tired, wet and hungry

Munro since diagnosis #180

14:00 – Ben Lomond (M184), 3196ft, 974m

What greater logistical challenge can there be than gathering together a group of people at the base of a mountain at a specific date and time? And what is the chance, having chosen a particular mountain, a specific date and a time, that the weather will be clement and that all in the party will experience views from the summit?

We arrived from five directions at more or less at the appointed time at the car park at the end of the road on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. The midges were fierce. Just before ten, only half an hour later than planned, we were walking through an arch in the toilet block to a manicured path through woods towards the hill. We were ten human beings and two dogs.

To be honest, I would not have chosen to climb this hill on this particular day, were it not my sixtieth birthday. The weather was forecast to be reasonable in the morning, but in the afternoon it was expected that rain would spread form the west. The motivation was strong and my body felt as if it would be up to the task, but I had my doubts. As I mentioned, I am not recovering from the chemo as quickly as I had hoped; lethargy and fatigue still overcome me unexpectedly and the hormonal flushes still leave me soaking wet on the inside, shivering and bewildered. Despite small excursions here and there, I have not done much vigorous exercise for a while and do not feel that my core strength has yet recuperated from chemo. My preparations for this challenges of this mountain were more mental, for I knew that wherever I got to on the way up, I would always know if and when it was time to give up. Ben Lomond is not going anywhere.


This mountain, like Ben Starav, Crianlarich Ben More and Loch Earn Ben Vorlich, is an unremitting slog from start to finish. Initially the path rises steeply through woodland to a slightly more level section with views towards the path up the mountain ahead. After leaving the forest, the path rises again more steeply before another gentler section with views to the final zigzag to the summit ridge. Out of the forest, the path is not only an unremitting slog, it is also exposed to the full force of incoming Atlantic weather. This is the most southerly Munro and there is nothing taller nearer than Ben Ime, on the other side of Loch Lomond to the north west, over which dark clouds gathered, scattering squalls of hard rain over the landscape. 


I was hot and sweaty on the inside from exertion and medication, but cold, despite layers of insulating down and windstopper. As long as I kept going I was good, but if I stopped too long, I began to loose heat – or at least so it seemed. The party spread out along the path chatting happily, the dogs ignored each other while going about their separate business. From time to time we stopped to snack or to put on clothes against exposure and approaching weather. My lovely wife made it to about 750m before deciding that it would be better to turn round now and be able to walk back down, than to get to the summit – which already seemed too steep – to be then unable to get off the mountain without assistance. The most senior of the party, who had woken up with a cold and had been to the top before, decided too that this would be the moment to turn round. So we said farewell and they retraced their steps with one of the dogs. I plodded on, slowly and steadily up the zigzag of the summit cone to a clear path along the back of the hill to the top.


And so I came to the summit of the 180th Munro since being diagnosed with terminal cancer, on my sixtieth birthday, with my favourite mountain people. There was even a bit of a view. I popped a bottle of fizz and shared it round. It was a good feeling, but I was getting cold and there was another squall coming over. Much as I would have liked to hang around at the summit and recuperate from the climb with a sandwich, my body told me to keep moving; never be more than two of cold, tired, wet and hungry. I ate as much as I could stomach and packed my pockets with stuff to munch on the descent. The rain continued until we were off the summit, after which, to my surprise, it brightened up a little.


The going down was hard work, but at least it was not raining; the path is stony and irregularly stepped. After a while I remembered that unremitting upward slogs are not in the least compensated for by unremitting downward slogs. Some even say that coming down a mountain is harder on a body than going up. I know this myself from several difficult descents on for example the Aonachs, Glencoe and the Black Mount, but I always seem to forget this on the way up, telling myself that when I get to the top the work will be done, that because soon gravity will be on my side, it will become easier. I am always wrong of course. I was one of the last to return to the carpark, but I was not the only one nursing sore limbs, cramping muscles and stiff joints. It was getting on for five. The midges were still fierce. We repaired to reconvene at a local hostelry, where we ate heartily before heading home in our various directions.


What a wonderful way to celebrate my sixtieth birthday! What an achievement! After chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a barrage of collateral damage, here I was again, overcoming the weakened condition of my body by climbing a mountain, digging deep into my reserves, determined again to be alive! Like I said, I would have chosen a day with better weather to climb this mountain, and the next day I felt it badly; my calves refused to work at all. It was difficult to get out of bed and I had to go downstairs sitting, or sideways very carefully. It was another day before I was able to walk without limping and creaking. After a week, I felt as if I was finding some sort of core strength, my ability to recover had recovered, so to speak. Ten days later I believe I am out of the final cycle at last, and feel sure I will get up a mountain or two again soon. I will certainly choose a day with better weather, although it is unlikely that I will ever find better company than on Ben Lomond.


Many thanks to all involved. You know who you are.

Love and Peace.


Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

4 thoughts on “Turning sixty”

  1. Did this hill in 2014 when I first came back to Scotland from NL. Cried and smiled at the top ( had an epiphany- long story) Glad and grateful to be 60 too! Keep smiling. See you soon L J x


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