|Maol Bhuidhe and a snow-dusted Lurg Mhor|
Maol Bhuidhe bothy lies in the heart of the great roadless quarter between the Road to the Isles to the South and the Lochcarron road to the North. It is a strong contender for the title of Scotland’s Most Remote Bothy, and this inaccessibility, coupled with the many references to it in Ian R Thomson’s ‘Isolation Shepherd’ gives it a tremendous sense of place. It has become a firm favourite of mine, a place that I know I will return to again and again for as long as I have the necessary fitness.
My friend Dave and I have become the sole participants in an esoteric but highly rewarding sport. The simple objective is to get into Maol Bhuidhe on a Friday night in the depths of winter. We’ve been in twice before, using a different route each time. Both times we arrived between 0200 and 0300 on Saturday morning, very tired and pretty close to the ends of our tethers. We set out on our third route expecting it to be hard, but thinking that it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the previous attempts. Deep down I knew that the second had been harder than the first, so why shouldn’t the third be worse still? Just to ensure good sport we made our customary late start and loaded our bags to overflowing with beer and coal. You can read about the first two visits here.
|The three approaches tried so far. The most recent is in green.|
The conditions we experienced on Friday night could not have been more different to the icy, starlit approaches of previous visits. Horizontal rain blasted us from behind. The temperature was close to freezing, but warm enough for the rain to wash away the snow that had fallen earlier in the day. This year’s route started at Killilan, but instead of cycling east up Glen Elchaig, as we had done on our first visit, we followed the River Ling to the north. We left our bikes in the deer shit-filled tin shed in Coire Domhain, which I found reminiscent of Breacan’s Cave on Jura. From there we struck over the high ground towards Bealach Luib nam Feedag before dropping down to meet the path from Glen Elchaig. Compared to the other approaches it is shorter, and satisfyingly direct, but we were to find it the most testing of all.
Roaring water made itself audible over the wind as soon as we left the tin shed. Almost immediately we had to cross a wide, fast-flowing burn. It was clear that there was no easy way over and we decided just to accept wet feet and wade across rather than going off route to blunder about upsteam in the hope of finding an easy fording point. The crossing felt challenging in the fast-flowing water. When I looked back to watch Dave cross the water was half-way up his thighs at times. We then picked up a stalker’s path that wound its way from Coire Domhain towards Bealach Luib nam Feedag. The path terminated at the foaming waters of the Allt a’ Choire Dubh, which at first sight appeared impassable. At the first burn we’d been worried about wet feet, but this one looked ready to sweep us away. We prospected upstream and found a wider section to try.
|The burn in Coire Domhain as we found it on Sunday. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to photograph the rivers on Friday night but at the time just getting across them seemed more important.|
The flow deepened and speeded up as we approached the far bank and, feeling that a dunking was a real possibility, I remembered the advice that one should loosening one’s rucsac waist bands prior to crossing a river. As I undid my waistband in midstream my pack, which was top heavy with beer and coal, unbalanced me. I pitched forward, becoming partially immersed in the icy torrent of snowmelt, bracing myself with my poles. This increased my cross sectional area and the force of the water increased, pushing me downstream. As I tried to stand back up my pack tilted forwards, counteracting my efforts. The situation was reminiscent of being strung out during a climb; it was clear that I couldn’t stay where I was, yet any movement brought with it the even less palatable possibility of a full immersion in the frigid waters. There followed a period of stalemate during which Dave overtook me and started hauling himself up the bank. The icy drenching unsettled me and I knew that I had to get moving to generate some heat.
I was trialling navigation using the Viewranger GPS software, keen to see whether or not, when run on a waterproof smartphone like the Motorola Defy+, it could make an adequate substitute for a proper GPS. It worked well initially but as the weather deteriorated it became increasingly difficult to operate, largely because I had forgotten to disable the screen lock and had difficulty with entering my password with rain hitting and activating the touch screen. I checked it regularly as we marched over sodden, trackless terrain, at times convinced that we could see Argo cat tracks. We followed a raging burn, all the while conscious of the very real risk of hypothermia and alert for symptoms such as disorientation and muddled thought. We were aiming for a fork in the burn but never seemed to get any closer to it. I realised that the GPS had cut out and that we were now further along and to the left of the bealach. It was cold with lying snow and an icy, rain-laden wind. There followed a short period of bumbling around the complex topography during which we contrived to contour round 180 ° and track about 200 m back the way we had come. After verifying our position with the GPS I abandoned my experiment with technology, pulled map and compass from my bag and took a bearing, delighting in the simplicity and ease of use of the old-fashioned method.
The terrain soon levelled and eventually began to slope down. The descent was surprisingly short, for it meets the path near its high point. We had to make a third river crossing to access the path. It was straightforward enough but on any other night it would have been worthy of comment. We picked up the track and marched on, cheerful at having put the worst behind us. Our margin for error had been reduced uncomfortably close to zero up on the high ground. I wasn’t short on energy but was concerned about the creeping effects of exposure. The burn by the bothy, innocuous on previous visits, provided a counterbalance to my euphoria at the first sight of its white-washed walls. It was a fearsome prospect. We scouted downstream. Dave announced that he was going for it and promptly fell in. In the bothy all was soaked by our dripping equipment.
|Crossing the burn at Maol Bhuidhe on Sunday morning under a leaden winter sky. The picture below gives an indication of how low the level was compared to peak flow on Saturday night.|
We lit a fire and began to warm up. We both agreed that the approach had been one of the toughest ordeals we had endured. Previous approaches had been long and hard but the conditions were ideal, crisp and still. We were able to rest frequently and enjoy the stars and the groaning ice of Loch Calavie. There was no such option this time round. We had to keep moving to stay warm; there could be no rest, no warmth until we reached the bothy. I do not know how long we could have continued without suffering some ill effect and ending up in a bit of a predicament – probably much longer than one might think, the human body is after all capable of far greater feats of endurance than an sodden ten mile trudge with a heavy pack. We speculated as to what might have transpired had we invited a normal person – an unsuspecting work colleague for example – along on this trip, informing them, as we ourselves partially believed at the start, that we may make it to the bothy by midnight. I honestly don’t know what would happen, they would certainly find the experience a bit distressing, I know I did.
Of the three approaches this was by far the hardest, entirely due to the weather and rivers. But by morning we were again plotting new approaches for next year, identifying several untried ones on the map. The Maol Bhuidhe magic was working again. We ate a late breakfast then retired to doze until 1600, keen to conserve coal for the evening. Dave left bothy once with spade, I once to collect water. Snow drifted on the flanks of Ben Dronaig, outside and all around the rivers raged, I picked a marker stone in the burn and was pleased to watch the level drop considerably over the afternoon, then dismayed to watch it rise above its previous high point by bedtime. Thankfully the waters had receded by Sunday morning and return journey took a full two hours less than the approach.
|This is the burn outside the both as we found it on Sunday morning. On Saturday night the square block was totally submerged and I suspect that it was in a similar condition when we arrived on Friday night|