58km walked over five days
A plan had started to form almost exactly a year ago, a warm sunny Easter Sunday just before 7am sat on the summit of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair during a round of the great wilderness of Fisherfield. Looking south to Torridon lay a sprawling sea of jagged summits, all wearing the last of the winter snow on their northern side looking magnificent under a brilliant blue sky. Thoughts of returning have been replaying ever since, a long backpack around Torridon, a five day round of the summits and wild camps in the glens. A large OS map had been tacked up to my living room wall for weeks, long winter evenings and lunch breaks at work were spent sketching out various routes and marking out places to camp out. Childcare was arranged and time off work was booked, a bag all ready and packed, I even cleaned the car for the long journey up.
Then there’s that saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing”, it’s definitely not true, the forecast for Torridon was very very bad. I wasn’t expecting anything like the sublime conditions from the year before, this was North West Scotland and mixed weather isn’t unusual. As the days crept closer it was apparent that every single day was due to be utterly horrific. Refreshing the weather app on my phone became a grim obsession, each day bearing a promise for very heavy rain, gale force winds and atrocious poor visibility. Thoughts of cancelling or postponing crept in, it’s a long way to travel to get frozen and soaked and to see nothing. On the other hand, as a single parent with a full time job, anytime spent on a hill is a blessing whatever the weather. When trips have been cancelled before, they are typically miserable and remorseful affairs that all result in staring out of the window wondering “what if?”
The plan just needed a little tweaking…
The trick to a good Plan B is to quietly make it far better than Plan A, so when things do go wrong you’re secretly quite happy about it all. The contingency in this case was to aim just south of Torridon into the remote region of Attadale and West Monar for five days of backpacking. Staying clear of the summits and taking a lower level route using a different bothy each night and taking whatever the weather wanted to throw in my direction.
Bothies hold their own sense of adventure, you might know where you’re heading but you never know what you’re going to get until you walk through the door. You might be in for a night on your own or you might gatecrash a party. Until you open the door there is no sense of how the place will feel, some are welcoming and homely, others can feel a little eerie and destitute. Bothies are as close as you can get to wild camping without pitching a tent.
After an eleven hour drive walking into the rain was refreshing, it fell gently and the air felt cool and damp with no hint of Spring. The grassy track had turned to a stream and mist was draping around the glen and it was good to be walking out somewhere in spite of the wet. After crossing the rushing waters of Fionn Abhainn the twin stone chimneys of a temporary home, Coire Fionnaraich, were seen in the distance amongst the rich yellows and browns under the hanging mist. The bothy was empty and the visitors book showed that it hadn’t seen a visitor for several days. There must surely be some correlation between how haunted a bothy feels and how many rooms it has, there were five different rooms to bed down for the night and none of them felt quite right. As the evening drew in, the rain began to fall heavily, dozy and restless from the long drive I spent the evening looking through maps seeking out anything that could be used to aid navigation in poor visibility. I slept in the top room with wooden floors and walls and a small square sash window which looked out over the river. I woke early to more rain and mist before setting out into West Monar, the route involved a little doubling back and taking a path through the pine forest on the banks of the fast flowing dark waters of the River Carron. The remaining bar of phone signal was enough to quickly call my dad before it reduced to zero, as I’d be staying off the summits and staying low any signal would be non-existent for the entire trip so it was good to speak to someone before disappearing. I left behind the small cluster of white houses at Achintee and followed a deer track that made its way to higher ground. The morning remained unexpectedly dry, though the moody looking skies made it very clear that it wasn’t going to last.The morning was mostly dry for the walk in, enough to stop for soup by the trees and waterfalls near the River Taodil. The route for the day was fairly simple, passing by the northern side of Creag Dhubh Mhòr and dropping down into the wide open glen overlooked by Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich. I was heading to another bothy, Bearneas at the far head of Loch, more remote than the last. Passing over the ridge the weather came in hard, stealing away any views as the hills became completely covered in grey cloud, rain showers came in short bursts at first before becoming heavier and then colder before, it finally turned to freezing hail heavy to the point that the noise of it hitting my hood started to sound like white noise. I remember seeing a small herd of deer walking along a ridge, they would appear and disappear in the mist every few minutes. Two of the hinds stood perfectly still, knowing something else was out there, with nothing better to do I sat in the rain and watched them from below whilst the worst of the weather passed over. This felt like a journey where I could get along quite well with the rain, it came and went, heavy then light, with atmospheric billowing grey clouds rolling in from the West, variety came in the constantly changing views each time the weather changed. It never really stopped raining but the air cleared on the approach to Bearneas to give a spectacular view of the vast glen, the cottage could be seen as a small speck whilst a hundred or so deer were scattered grazing either side of Abhainn Bhearnais. The showers lapsed into hail the drizzle with strong icy gusts of wind helping them all along, this was perfect weather for heading to a bothy, amazing to be out in, too far to walk in a day and no fun to camp in.Bearneas was a small one roomed stone cottage tucked away where the Abhainn Bhearnais flows into Loch an Laoigh. Again the building was empty, moreso this time, the bothy had only seen a small handful of visitors this year, something about this place felt right, small, simple and a welcome refuge from the howling weather. A pot of water for tea was starting to boil whilst hail rattled away on the corrugated roof. The last hail storm disappeared off up the glen before the last of the light faded and for the briefest of moments the cloud cleared from the surrounding tops all of which were topped with a fresh coat of white. Bearneas served as a wonderful place to spend the night, I slept well on a raised platform and ate plenty in the evening and morning, bothies encourage a simple life with food and sleep being luxury enough. The air was still clear in the morning before the first rain fell, the tops were still white from a mixture of fresh hail and older winter snow. The large herd of deer had returned to the waters edge at dawn, I managed to prompt a mass exodus by opening the door of the bothy, to which they simultaneously looked up, paused, and ran away. A long lazy morning was spent packing up slow and eating well before setting out south to walk along the east shore of the loch.
With the easy flowing deep rivers and long peaceful lochs it looked like good pack rafting country and I wondered whether I should have bought my boat along, those thoughts quickly stopped as the first rain came in. Heavy showers blew in sideways, I was walking against it today, so it was a case of hoods up with every waterproof drawstring pulled taut, marching on with heads down. Again the weather constantly changed coming through in twenty minute bursts with short intervals between the showers which at times became laughably heavy.
The sight of Bendronaig Lodge and it’s open shelter was welcome, the first bothy I’ve seen with a flushing toilet and stocked up with dry firewood. I stopped for food and to give myself a break from being attacked by rain, the temptation to stop here for the day and build a fire grew every minute I stayed, but it was far too early and I was keen to walk deeper into Attadale to the most remote bothy of the trip.
I left Bendronaig to walk out in very heavy snow showers taking a low anticlockwise route around the base of Beinn Dronaig, a long hump of a hill which was mostly swamped by cloud and only the soaking tan brown grass and heather showing today. I followed the course of the Uisgh Dubh to the River Ling which was raging and frothy from the rain and the snow melt, the noise of the waterfalls thundering down deep gorges was overwhelming. Two young stags scattered as the river met the Ling and the snow continued to flurry down in large silent flakes.
I’d been warned that the River Ling was difficult to cross and contemplated getting over at the first junction but two thirds of the way across it was far too deep. Hours were spent walking upstream looking for other places to make a crossing without success, ill fated efforts to get over ended in frustrated retreats, it was either too deep, too fast or more often than not both. The rocks were also slippy and I lost my nerve about jumping from one to another to get across, miles and miles from anywhere and anyone this wasn’t a good place to make a bad decision.
I was heading to Maol Bhuidhe, one of the most remote bothies in the highlands, a small white cottage overlooking Loch Cruoshie and dwarfed by Aonach Buidhe to its rear. As the hours passed by the bothy came to view but I was still separated from it by the raging deep River Ling which looked as uncrossable as ever. I’ve never seen a river so white with churning froth. There was a Plan C, to camp out under a tarp which I’d brought along just in case, there were plenty of places to pitch which would have been perfect on a better day but the weather was relentlessly hard going, cold, windy and wet, camping out really was a last resort.
I finally managed to get across near Loch Cruoshie where the waters shallowed to knee deep, not quite so rapid fast and a shore of pebbles extended out into the river, the crossing was an ungraceful affair with sloshing and swearing as icy water filled my boots. It was a great relief to be on the other side with wet feet and heading through the damp grass to the refuge of the bothy.
The bothy was dark, less homely than Bearneas but to have a place to wait out the storms in such a remote area I was just happy to have shelter, a hot meal and to bed down on the top floor for the night. Angry dark blue clouds were gathering and quickly moving in before the now familiar rattle of hail on the rooftops. The night was a succession of wild hail storms, I lay deep in a sleeping bag watching ice form on the attic window above me wondering how strong that roof was.Monday morning brought an unexpected burst of sunlight, breaking through the clouds over the summit of Beinn Bheag. A fair amount of snow had fallen in the night and the landscape had lapsed back into Winter. I pulled on cold damp socks and boots to walk down to the loch with coffee in hand to make the most of the sunlight. It was the coldest morning I’ve felt for a while which made returning to the bothy for hot tea and a warm sleeping bag a pleasure.The moment of colour brought by the sunrise was all too brief as the sky quickly filled with grey again. Leaving Maol Bhuidhe behind I walked back out into Winter, crossing back over the river at the same point and up into the snow. The clouds would occasionally break overhead allowing the sunlight to find a way through and bringing colour and life to the world, at times it felt like all four seasons were happening at once.Walking in tough conditions rewards by giving a renewed gratitude for any break in the weather, whether it’s an unexpected burst of light, a pause in the rain or the silence after the wind drops.
Even in these conditions the landscape was majestic, soaked through, freezing and smothered with clouds it was a pleasure to be out in the middle of it all, the summits weren’t being missed at all, staying low involved a regular easy pace and an appreciation for the beauty of the glens. I was heading back down to Bendronaig, the lure of the stacks of firewood and the chance to properly dry out had won me over, a perfect destination after 4 days go walking through all weathers. The last few showers were welcome as the track lead down out of the snow, a final ‘do your worst’ dousing before a a well deserved day of idling around the bothy.Soaking waterproofs and boots were aired out, the stove was lit and I spent a long afternoon enjoying being warm and dry, reading and watching steam rise up from my socks as I sat by the fire. Blizzards raced down the glen all afternoon, the idea of camping out has lost any charm. The fire was a really luxury, to read by, cook on, stare into and finally to sleep by, to find such comfort and warmth in such a remote place made for a memorable evening. I could happily spend a few more nights like that.Everything aside from my boots had been well dried out by the morning, the prospect of a few more hours walking through the wild weather wasn’t so daunting, it’s amazing what good rest, a few warm meals and a decent nights sleep by a fire does for the soul.
I returned to Strathcarron on the fifth day by taking a track that headed west and cut back over the snow covered side of Carn Geuradainn. It would have been frustrating to leave as the weather was brightening, so there was some solace in walking back out through the worst weather of all, the winds picked up to the point that it made walking difficult and the dark clouds flung all manner of hail in my direction. Visibility was atrocious, a few metres as best with hail and rain blowing into my face, the final miles had my head down, with map and compass out and counting paces. I barely though about Plan A and those hills aren’t going anywhere soon. I hadn’t summited a single munro and I couldn’t care less, I’d much rather head out in the cold wind and wet to a bothy when the weather doesn’t play nice, this trip was a reminder that the good stuff isn’t all restricted to hilltops and ridges, there’s no greater place to be than out there in the middle of it all, high or low, rain or shine. Plan B gets an A.