It all started off innocently enough, ambling through a quiet Kinlochleven on a damp grey Saturday to begin a four day backpack around the Mamores at the tail end of Winter. The town was deserted and smelt like woodsmoke, the only people I did see were nipping out to the shops and back home to warm fires. In the forest surrounding the Grey Mares Tail waterfall, the air had become mild and had the warmth of Spring, the ground was still well covered with Autumn leaves whilst snow was in no shortage on the tops, only Summer was left out. Leaving civilisation didn’t take long and after gaining a little height along a thin track only Loch Leven and the surrounding mountains could be seen. I could gauge whether waterproofs were needed by looking back occasionally for a rudimentary forecast, if the Pap of Glencoe remained visible it would likely stay dry for at least 15 minutes, if it disappeared into the murk then a drenching was inevitable. Heavy showers came and went during the first slow miles during the climb to the western edge of Loch Eilde Mòr, I stopped once to speak to some homeward bound mountain bikers who were so soaked through they looked to be raining themselves. When the heavens truly opened I sought shelter in an old leaking boat house on the edge of the loch until the sound of the rain on the broken corrugated roof changed from rattling to pattering. The inside of the boat house was fairly grim, the back piled up high up with rubbish, burnt packets of camping food, crushed beer cans and empty energy gels all trodden into slimy black mud. Having recently reread ‘Mountain Days and Bothy Nights’ and thinking of the basic howffs early mountaineers might consider bedding down in, I wondered how bad things would have to be to spend a night in here. The good weather plan was to camp high by Coire an Lochan between two munros, Sgòr Eilde Beag and Sgùrr Eilde Mor before heading to the summit of the latter the following day. The worst of the weekend’s weather was due in the south of England where Storm Katy had prompted warnings of biblical winds. There was no indication of the storm shifting north so in spite of some ferocious looking skies looming in the south over Glencoe I pressed on and climbed past the snowline.
The snow still lay deep and the lochean was still frozen, however pitching was an ordeal and took several attempts before the tent started to look like a tent. The ground was either very stony or very soft and marshy, neither of these being receptive to a a tent stake. If I could find a place between hard rocks to push a stake in, it tended to pathetically flop out of the ground when any tension was applied. After a fashion, the tent was up, there was little wind but I put the cross over poles in place to give a little more structure. A warm meal and a few extra layers gave some relief from the dropping temperature and after a long day I was more than ready for good nights sleep.
Which is just about the time when Storm Katy showed upThe wind didn’t build gradually with the storm, it came out of nowhere and slammed into the tent side with such shocking force that my first thoughts were that an avalanche had struck. It was like being attacked by some wild animal on a stampede. Tent pegs were ripped out straight away, and I heard the percussive sound of the flysheet flapping. I made the first of many trips outside to repitch. Pulling on the days wet clothes and boots to try and force pegs and stakes into the snow in winds that were virtually impossible to stand in. I later heard from a friend who had spent the same night in a van near Torridon where the winds coming in off the sea at over 80mph.
What followed was the worst night I’ve spent on a hill, the storm continued through till morning, when the wind occasionally dropped it was only a matter of seconds before it returned. There was nothing to do except endure it, laying down wondering how strong the wind would have to be to take me along with it. Flurries of snow, rain and hail all made an appearance and added to the cacophony. Sleep was out of the question and most of the night was spent trying to minimise the damage by getting out of the tent to pile more snow around the pegs to make them hold. I contemplated packing up and getting down but felt coming off the hill in such strong winds would have been too dangerous, the best option seemed to be to stay put and wait till first light. The leaking boat house didn’t seem so unattractive now.
At 6am the tent was a frozen mess, poles had been bent and a few items that had been stashed in the porch had been blown away into the night when the pegs were ripped out. The total damage was a few stuff sacks and empty water pouches, a pair of waterproof trousers and a spoon! A great deal of snow had fallen and drifted in the night and would have likely buried anything blown away.
Everything was packed away in a rush before a hurried descent to the loch, the sight of patches of blue in the sky was met equally with disbelief and happiness. A second boat house on the eastern loch was locked up but was handily equipped with rusty hooks and nails making a decent place to hang up the wettest of my gear in an attempt to drip dry. I boiled water for a much needed coffee trying to get my head around the last twelve hours. By midmorning the landscape had transformed, the day had become bright with blue skies and sunshine only a gentle breeze occasionally passing through the glen. There was no bitterness at missing out on reaching the summits of the Mamores, no doubt it would have been a fine day for it but the ease of walking down a track was far preferable after a sleepless night and I was happy to appreciate my surroundings from a lower altitude. I could see Meanach bothy in the distance on beyond the ghostly ruin of Lùibeilt. The promise of a decent shelter, a place to dry off and rest was enough to make the rest of the day less of a struggle. I had to detour a few soggy miles through marshy tussocks to find a place to cross a deep and fast flowing Abhainn Rath,the melting snow and recent rains adding to the flow of the river. I eventually came to a point where the water was just knee deep and crossable barefoot and braced some freezing waters, using trekking poles to make the crossing a little easier. There was now just a few easy miles to the bothy which looked all the more idyllic in the light of the afternoon. Meanach was empty and had been for a few days, just as well as I would have made for lousy company; starving and sleep deprived, I was in need of nothing but to do nothing at all. Large lumps of still frozen snow fell out of my pack from the mornings hasty departure as I hung damp clothes, for the first time that day missing the night’s strong winds that would have dried everything out a little quicker. Meanach was a wonderful place to rest, overlooked in the distance by the snow covered Nevis range with the sun setting through the valley. A decadent meal in evening sunshine followed by cup after cup of coffee, I laid down on the sleeping platform and in spite of all of the caffeine read a few pages of a book before sleeping deeply for thirteen hours. I woke at 7am to find that the temperature had dropped in the night and left a blanket of frost over the glen, ghostly yellow sunlight flooded in from the east. The previous morning in my sleep deprived state I’d repeatedly asked myself questions around why I bother coming to such places to suffer, this morning gave a simple wordless answer. I gave myself a lazy morning, sitting out to watch the sun light up the view down Glen Nevis with summits poking through and around the clouds. I left Meanach to go further north east in the direction of the Grey Corries, familiar dark clouds of were building again and it seemed that an unsettled day was likely, though aside from a light dusting of snow on the lower ground it never really came. Looking back at the Mamores, they appeared quite foreboding under grey skies, the white pointed summit of Binnein Beag striking upwards into the sky I climbed Stob Ban from the south as the clouds lifted and the sun shone, kicking into hard snow to make steps on the steeper snow and finding some waist deep drifts along the way. Along the ascent the conditions changed drastically shifting between thick winter clouds and a fine summers day. I didn’t linger on the summit but found myself enjoying the wilder and darker views of the Grey Corries as the weather turned again. I left the deep winter snow of the north face of Stob Ban to drop down to the small bothy in Lairig Leacach overlooked by the craggy snow flecked mass of Sgùrr Innse. The bothy was small and well used, I decided to stop for food and rest but wasn’t ready to call it a day just yet and spent the rest of the day following the flow of the Allt na Lairige to Loch Treig. Another bothy, Staoineag was a short walk from the loch, walking upstream through grassy woodland made for a refreshing change from the snow and mud that had made up the day.
I reached Staoineag just before sunset, the fire was already blazing and smoke was billowing out the chimney thanks to two walkers from Cologne who were making their way to Corrour train station the following day after walking in from Fort William. They were excellent company and made the evening all the more enjoyable and memorable. The larger of the two men, Kristian, spoke very good English and made repeated references to his quiter friend as ‘This Fucking Idiot’. They had crossed the river using the stepping stones and his friend had unfortunately dropped his boots in the water as they crossed, Kristian had swiftly jumped into the deep and freezing water to rescue them as it turns out the other had a broken shoulder?! When I explained I’d camped out in the storms of the previous night they told me that they had spent the same night in a bed and breakfast, the winds had been so strong that the windows and been blown in during the night. We stayed up late, the bothy was one of the finest I’ve stayed in, not just for the company and the warmth of the fire but for sense of the history of the place as a home in days gone by. Tacked to the wooden walls were written accounts of a stalkers family that had lived here over a century ago and how they would have a ceilidh with the family who had lived in Luibelt further up the river.
The others left early the following morning and I had an hour on my own before setting out. The ashes of the fire still gave out a little heat from the night before though the it was too fine not to sit out and have breakfast on the riverbank in the morning light, lamenting the last day of a memorable trip. The final miles took me up and over Glas Bheinn, bringing Loch Eilde Mòr and Beag back into view, I saw the first and only deer of the entire trip, three young stags and a group of hinds bounding into the distance as I passed Càrn Dearg. As had been the case for the three previous days the conditions shifted wildly between wild and serene, warm sunshine on the way up, winds and hailstorms at the summit and a near whiteout on the descent. A final moody glimpse of Glencoe to the south gave a dramatic ending to a dramatic trip. I looked back over to the Mamores and wondered what had became of my trousers.