Some places get inside you, and the remote Maol Bhuidhe bothy is one of those places. My first visit was in the winter of 2008-09 by the most obvious route, a long icy cycle up Glen Elchaig followed by a climb over the Aonach Bhuidhe – Foagaich bealach. We returned a further three times, using a different route each time. The accounts of previous approaches that follow were written on my original blog, with the spammy formatting that encouraged me to migrate from blogger to wordpress.org very much in evidence.
Night March to Maol Bhuidhe: The first two visits, from Killilan by way of Iron Lodge in December 2008, which predates this blog, and a single push from Attadale in January 2010.
Another Night March to Maol Bhuidhe: From Killilan again in November 2011, this time by way of Coire Domain.
Yet Another Night March to Maol Bhuidhe: An eastern approach from Strathfarrar in December 2012.
Three years had elapsed since my last visit and I wasn’t prepared to let another slip past. So it was that I left home after dinner and drove to pick up Dave in Drumnadrochit. We drove on snowy roads to the west coast, where rain had washed away the snow. Having already used all the practical approach routes we were on our second round and decided on the approach favoured by the late Maintenance Organiser Mike Pratt. He used to walk into Bendronaig Lodge, pass a night there, then continue to Maol Bhuidhe the next day by way of Loch Calavie. Back in 2010 we forgot the part about the night in Bendronaig and left the perfectly good bothy about 2330 to arrive in MB at 0350, haunted by the eerie ice sounds of Loch Calavie and frazzled and traumatised by the rough terrain between loch and bothy. Such is the allure of Maol Bhuidhe, enough to make tired men eschew the comforts of a prime bothy like Bendronaig.
A sudden downpour of icy rain engulfed us as we arranged bikes and gear in the car park, where the presence of another vehicle gave an early warning that we might have company for the night. I had dressed lightly for cycling and pushing up the steep hill and had to get moving to maintain warmth, fiddling with hood, gloves and lights as I pedalled.
Last time we’d passed this way we were lucky enough to get our bags transported into the bothy by a pair of friendly stalkers who were out lamping for foxes. It didn’t feel like lamping weather so I resigned myself to pushing my bike, unweildy with panniers and coal on the back, most of the way up the hill. It was nowhere near as bad as I recalled, with several sections being actually cyclable and the final switchbacks appearing much earlier than expected. It is a spectacular bit of road, reminiscent of the Schafer trail in Utah’s Canyonlands.
I was faster on the descent by virtue of having a bike with brakes and arrived at the bothy a few minutes before Dave. The orange glow of candlelight revealed the bothy was inhabited. Bendronaig has a sizable main room with several smaller roooms off to the side. Only one of these rooms has a door, but the occupants had rigged their own door on one of the others, using a space blanket to retain the heat from their fire. I called a greeting and they emerged from their cave, inviting me in to enjoy the heat. Paul and Chris had driven up from the south of England for a few nights of bothy action. They’d planned to get into Maol Bhuide, but had been dissuaded by the forecast and had opted for another night at Bendronaig instead. They had certainly made themselves at home, with tinsel and fairy lights providing festive cheer.
Paul seemed sheepish about the decorations, but the fairy lights ran off a pair of AAs and certainly provided more light than an equivalent weight of candles. Chris emphasised the research that had preceeded his purchase – he’d hunted around for a 2 rather than 4 battery version to save weight. They were clearly men who loved the country and loved the gear that made living in it comfortable.
Among their kit was a bothy thermometer and they had been carefully monitoring the temperature on both sides of the space blanket, recording a maximum differential of 21 C, 24 inside and 3 outside in the main room. I was impressed by the thought that had gone into bringing both blanket and the instrumentation required to verify its effectiveness.
I imagined them at their desks in the crowded south, plotting their equipment and travel plans for their next bothy hit. I spent half my twenties similarly adrift in the South, an excellent investment of time, because I would now do anything to avoid living there again. They had driven ten hours to start their trip. Dave and I had left home after leisurely dinners with our families.
It pleased me no end that they were familiar with our work through this blog, mentioning without being prompted the two guys who come in the same weekend every year using a different route each time. Unbeknown to us this was our weekend and we were half expected, though in truth we have never fixed a weekend, with our visits spread between November and January. Dave and I had always hoped to meet Mike Pratt again, now others speculate that they might run into us, as if we are a pair of modern day Mike Pratts. In truth we are but pale imitations.
I have an uneasy relationship with bothy popularisation. If it is a problem then I am a part of it. In mentioning Bendronaig above I have broken my own rule that I won’t mention non-MBA bothies. I checked before doing so and the internet is already littered with mentions of the place. All this information makes bothying much more accessible than it once was. I had to join the MBA to find out the locations. They were only published online round about when I started this blog. One of my most read pieces discusses this decision, which was controversial at the time, but a drop in the flood of popularisation that has culminated in a Cicerone guidebook and a BBC documentary ‘Bothy Life’, which I had downloaded onto my phone to watch round the fire at Maol Bhuidhe.
There are some who go to bothies for a sociable time and like nothing more than a convivial night around the fire singing, followed by a disturbed night of snoring and people stumbling over them on their way outside for a piss. I am part of the antisocial fringe who wants to get a bothy to myself and brings a tent if there is a high risk of finding others there, for example at popular bothies or during the summer season.
There was a healthy measure of snoring in Bendronaig for sure – some of it mine – and I was glad I had my earplugs. We were up and away by 0930, leaving just enough daylight to reach Maol Bhuidhe. Sunny slopes lay ahead but we were near the end of the loch before we felt its rays on our faces. We paused for lunch and coffee at the end before using the wire bridge to cross the outflow and unlock the final long 3 km or so over peaty badlands.
When we crested the hill and got our first view of Maol Bhuidhe I was overwhelmed by the sense of peace, just the noise of the rivers carrying far in the still, sunny air. My feet were reasonably dry upon arrival at the river but I just waded right across, soacking them in the sure knowledge that we had 10 kg of coal to dry them out.
We had a fire on and some beers on the go before the sunset and I wandered outside, enjoying the view and the crisp air. When the alpenglow began to fade on Lurg Mhor’s slopes the loch skinned with ice instantly, leaving only a small patch of clear water near the outflow where half a dozen swans fluffed their down in preparation for a cold night.
We watched the Bothy Life programme and I was pleasantly surprised. The presentation was great, with beautiful footage and given the roll call of bothy worthies that participated it was impossibel to criticise. Whether or not it will lead to an influx of fresh bothy goers I don’t know. Even if it does I am hopeful that there will still be at least seasonal oases where peace and quiet are the order of the day.
It clouded over during the night. Next day we walked out over the top of a very snowy Bendronaig. The new route was a change for the better, we spent night time asleep and daytime outside, the opposite of the usual where we have been so tired after a night approach that we’ve slept through the day.
As Dave reamarked we have nothing left to prove. Our meeting with Paul and Chris shows that our exploits over the last seven years are in the process of passing into bothy lore. Ardous night time approaches might be behind us, but somehow I doubt it. I have one or two I’d like to do before I throw in the towel.