Regular readers of this blog will be accustomed to the annual night march to Maol Bhuidhe, perhaps Scotland’s most remote bothy. This event has somehow become a regular fixture in my winter calendar. Dave and I have been in on three previous occasions, each time by a different route. Read about them here and here. Each time we have expected our route to be easier than those that preceded it, yet we have always found it to be harder. Last year’s was particularly awful; a fortnight later all Dave’s toenails fell off.
This year’s route was truly one for the connoisseur. Our three previous approaches all started from the west, from Killilan or from Attadale. What was missing was an eastern approach. After poring over our maps we decided to start from Glen Strathfarrar. Those familiar with this glen will know that access is problematic despite a tarmac road running its 18 mile or so length. The road was built using public money during the construction of the Monar dam and associated hydroelectric works in the 1960s. After the construction finished, the road was handed back to the control of the estates in the glen, though some provision for public vehicular access was negotiated in return for the free road. During the summer season a gatekeeper permits entry to a maximum of 25 cars a day. In winter the situation is more complex; one of the padlocks on the gate is a combination lock whose code may be obtained by phoning the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. These arrangements are of little use to bothy goers, for no vehicles may left in the glen overnight. The good news is that access on foot or by bicycle is unrestricted.
|Maol Bhuidhe bothy with Aonach Bhuidhe behind|
We encumbered ourselves as usual with obscenely heavy bags, laden with coal and beer. Dave is not inclined to apply technology to any problem that may instead be solved through a small measure of suffering. On every one of our previous approaches he has brought more equipment than may be accommodated within his pack and has carried some portion of his load, either beer or coal, in a separate bag. On this occasion his auxiliary bag was of blue fabric with thick cords attached at each end, of the type sometimes supplied by shoe shops so that one may jauntily shoulder one’s purchase on the way home. It was stuffed to the brim with coal. Had I not witnessed him perform similar feats of endurance in the past I would have thought it impossible.
We walked from the Monar Dam up Gleann Innes an Loichel on paths that should have been easy but instead were treacherous ribbons of ice. We followed a stalker’s path up to a height of around 500 m after which we followed the path of the stalked until they too petered out. This section, 7 km of trackless, peat-hagged badlands, was always going to be the crux of the route. A sleet-laden wind blasted our backs. The going was slow, each step requiring care, yet I relished our position. Any such trip involves a stack of decisions, like a house of cards. If the foundation is unsound each subsequent decision further destabilises the pile. Appropriate clothing, adequate nutrition and accurate navigation allowed us to remain warm and in control while traversing country as wild and remote as one could wish for, in the pitch dark and in horrendous weather conditions.
|Remnants of a shieling and a Victorian deer fence with Loch Cruoshie, Beinn Bheag and the snowcapped Strathfarrar Munros beyond.|
Last year I had experimented with a smartphone running Viewranger mapping software. I found it unusable in rain and this year I had it inside a small Ortleib bag which allowed me to use it more easily. The terrain was so complex that it was difficult to keep going in a straight line and I soon reverted to the simplicity of a map and compass, periodically using the GPS to confirm our position.
A river barred our way, partially frozen. I selected the thickest section and gingerly shuffled across. Dave followed in my footsteps and the ice started to crack. Seemingly in slow motion he sank like a scuppered ship into knee deep, icy water, still clutching his coal bag. Shortly afterwards we hunkered down in the lee of some boulders and took stock. I thought of the book ‘The Long Walk’, the story of the hardships endured by a group of Poles during WW2. Captured by the Russians, they were sent to a labour camp in Siberia. They escaped and made their way thousands of miles overland to the safety of British India. The levels of suffering we have endured on our approaches to Maol Bhuidhe pale into insignificance in comparison, though I do at least feel I can identify with their journey more than most.
Dave’s coal bag deteriorated as we advanced over the peat-hagged badlands. One cord attachment point failed, forcing him to carry it in ever more energy consuming ways. On and on we plodded, gaining height on the flanks of An Cruachan and traversing round to the bealach from which we would descend to pick up the stalker’s path to the bothy. Eventually the ground leveled off and then started to descend. We stuck to higher ridges to avoid the ice. I was delighted to find an Argo track and we followed it. At first it followed the path on the map, then when I next checked our position I was pleased to see that it was cutting off a corner, taking a more direct route. Next time I checked all was not well. We were heading in the wrong direction, eastwards towards Pait Lodge. If there was a junction with our intended path we had missed it.
|Not so bad in the daylight. Our route crossed the peat hags to reach the notch on the ridge just left of centre. Sgurr na Lapaich to the right.|
We headed off on a bearing to join the stalkers path where it crossed the river, tired legs unsteady on ground that was simultaneously icy and boggy. The terrain was complex, with large hummocky moraines. I struggled to maintain our course. I checked our position once more and when it was not what I expected – we were traveling parallel to the river – I attempted to use the phone GPS to navigate. This confused me even further and I started to blunder, coming to my senses after I slipped and fell on a patch of ice, my attention having been distracted by my screen. I muttered to myself as I checked and re-checked position and bearing, uncomfortably aware that we did not have time or energy to waste. After over 7 hours on the go, with a pack of military proportions, I was acutely aware that my reserves were finite, that at some point one of us would run out, and what then? We simply had to make it to the bothy.
My torchbeam illuminated a ptarmigan, flushed from beneath my feet. I started, then reflected on the weakness of the human animal: despite our equipment we would be in bad shape if we spent the night sitting out in the open, yet that small bird can do just that, night after night, whatever the weather.
We followed a bearing due south to gain the river. Dave lagged behind, struggling with his unwieldy load of coal. He shouted that the bag had split and that he was abandoning his cargo for collection next day. Deprived of this handicap he gained a second wind. Our spirits lifted further when we came across the partially frozen river. First I selected a section with thin ice and started to smash my way across, but the ice soon became too thick and I retreated, crossing instead at a section thick enough to bear my weight most of the way. Once across we followed the river downstream. Suspicious of my reasoning and navigating abilities, I was keen to select an error-proof route. When we got closer to the path I led us up towards it and we breathed a sigh of relief. Only 2 km of rough, icy path lay between us and shelter, dry clothes, warm tea. I counted one hundred steps at a time, often losing count and having difficulty matching my counting to my pace.
I whooped when my torchbeam revealed the whitewashed wall of Maol Bhuidhe. The time was 0350. Once inside I dropped my bag, fetched water from the burn and replaced my wet clothes. We lit a fire and I stared into the coals, my fatigued imagination interpreting their shapes in a series of convincing visions, a three dimensional dinner party scene, with around a dozen people in 1920s attire eating and chatting to the accompaniment of a three piece band. I glanced away and when my gaze returned my diners had been replaced with a troop of monkeys, black with white faces. Before retiring I opened the front door to relieve myself. The very sight of what lay outside, wind-blown sleet and soggy but icy terrain, triggered a flashback. After an hour in the bothy it seemed unthinkable that we had spent a full nine hours fighting through that weather. I started to shake through a combination of cold and some form of post-traumatic stress. Once inside my bag I warmed up and quickly drifted to sleep.
As these ordeals have unfolded year after year I have developed an intuition that one year one of us will announce that they have become too old for the game, that we have reached the end of the road. One thing that gave me hope was Mike Pratt, the maintenance officer, who arrived unexpectedly during the Saturday of our first visit. He regaled us with stories of a life that involved spending 150 nights a year in bothies. We were enthralled by his knowledge of the various approaches to the Maol Bhuidhe and I had hoped that we might meet him here again, hear more anecdotes of his bothy life and report our own adventures to the master.
|The trees of Pait Lodge, Loch Monar and Maoile Lunndaidh|
As Dave read his way through the bothy book he came upon the sad news that Mike had passed away earlier this year, aged 67. We reflected that with Mike gone and most feasible routes bagged it might be time to bring this adventure to an end.
As the afternoon wore on I re-read passages from Iain R Thomson’s ‘Isolation Shepherd’. The book describes his life as a shepherd over the hill from Maol Bhuidhe in the years preceding the development of the hydroelectric scheme and documents the social history of the area. What impressed me most about this book on first reading were its tales of the hardiness of previous generations. I had similar stories drummed into me as a youth and in Mike I had come face to face with the stoical toughness of the past, a man who thought nothing of walking from his house in Inverness to carry out some work on the roof of the Kearvaig bothy near Cape Wrath.
As I read an alternative notion occurred to me, that perhaps Mike’s passing gives us even more reason to continue testing ourselves with these winter visits, for only by doing so may we hope to come close to a genuine article now extinct.