I’m sat in our third lockdown wondering when did I last have a proper adventure. This isn’t to say that we can find adventure in our everyday lives, even in lockdown, but when did I last feel really challenged, pushed to my limits just enough to learn more about myself. Searching my memories of recent years, my thoughts go back to 2017 when I decided to see if my fairly new partner was ready to be challenged too.
The Cairngorms National Park in Scotland is one of my top UK destinations. It has ancient, native forests of twisting scots Pine and heather cloaking the lower slopes opening up to a high windswept plateau – a true arctic alpine habitat here in the UK. Poring over maps, as is my habit, I traced routes in, out and across the range. In need of some days spent in winter conditions for an upcoming assessment I made a plan for February and a route of 4-5 days of remote walking, crossing the park from south to north.
Our backpacks were substantial. We planned to stay in bothies (remote, basic, mountain shelters) but packed bivvy bags with our winter sleeping bags in case they were full, closed or unreachable. Our planned route was four nights but we packed food for five along with a stove and fuel. Crampons, ice axes, walking poles, a snow shovel and probe were among warm gloves and hats, plus spare gloves and hats. Always carry spares.
Leaving our van and notice of our intentions at a hotel in Blair Atholl Paul and I set out. We’d checked the weather and avalanche forecasts in the preceding days knowing that we were unlikely to get a mobile signal once we’d left. A good dump of recent snow covered the ground in increasing depth as we climbed away from the village. We started up the long ridge of Carn a Chlamain towards, and into, the cloud that hid the summit. Not true white out conditions, the white room in which you can’t tell which way is up and some people even report nausea, but disorientating enough, the white ground not very distinguishable from the white sky and visibility at around 20 meters. I navigated carefully, following compass bearings on dog legs around potential areas of difficulty. We moved slowly but descended out of the cloud as the sky was darkening to blue then purple, our first nights shelter visible darkly against the white of the snow.
The Tarf Hotel is one of the bigger bothies. It’s not now, or ever was, a hotel, but gained that name through Bothy lore and previous guests. Formerly a hunting lodge it has 4 separate rooms, each with a fireplace or stove – bothies are often long abandoned buildings, a former croft or lodge, that have been restored and maintained to be used as shelter. The Tarf is typically remote, a good few hours walk from a road, and more so in winter. We arrived to find another couple exchanging valentines cards, Paul and I grinned at each other having already agreed not to bother, and moved into the room next door. During the evening two more pairs arrived and each to a room. The lucky two who arrived by fat bikes had a bag of coal with them and must have had a cosy night. As a rule there is no locally available fuel and it shouldn’t be gathered if there is.
The following day was long, we knew it would be from the route planning. 25km to reach the next bothy on our way north with bag bags and big, stiff winter boots to pound our feet, the soft, deep snow made it even longer. Sometimes the frozen crust on top would hold your weight, a satisfying crunch as the crystals depressed, but the next step could see you drop, list, bend and fall, a quiet whoomph from the snow. It got easier after dropping some height and then a gradual climb upriver into a wide valley. The big open space was reflected in the breadth of my smile. Sparse pine forest and a braided river provided perfect habitat for the large herd of red deer eyeballing us on our way through. It was a delightful day but I was broken by the end, almost falling into Bob Scott’s Memorial Hut and needing hot soup before making conversation. Sharing space is part of the bothy experience (so strange to think of in times of Covid) but Bob Scott’s is especially popular. An easy-ish walk from a carpark, well built and insulated, with an outside toilet, it’s privately run and funded but open to all.** I think there were 14 of us that night and 2 large dogs, sharing the 2 sleeping platforms along one end of the room. I ended up sleeping outside on a bed of pine needles after it got too stuffy while Paul snuggled with one of the dogs.
Our third day was to be a short one with not not far to reach the next bothy. We loitered in the morning, waiting as everyone else headed out and we took our time over coffee. Our route was to continue on a gradual climb, upriver through Caledonian forest before turning up into the high Coire Etchachan where the Hutchinson hut was waiting for us for our third night. Highest in altitude, in a remote and true mountain setting, it was also our smallest bothy of the trip. A bench/ sleeping platform spanned one side of the room, wide enough for one, long enough for two, end to end. On a crowded night you could perhaps fit in four more on the floor with room to move, but no doubt more have squeezed in on occasion. We had it to ourselves until we heard the latch click around 10pm, a solo walker from Germany as surprised to see us as we were to see him.
It was a warm night. We’d now been without signal, without updates and forecasts, for three days. I hadn’t been expecting such a rapid temperature change, perhaps I’d not paid enough attention to the long range forecast. In the morning the snow around the hut was already melting, water was running off the mountainside and filling the stream. It made me nervous for our planned route, climbing a little higher but then dropping down a steep north facing slope. I tried to revise all I knew about avalanche terrain and conditions. Rapid warming can be a trigger for weaknesses in the snowpack, the north and north east facing slopes were loaded with snow blown by winds from the south west. Cautiously we made new plans. By summitting Ben Macdui, the second highest top in Scotland, we would have a long climb but on a less steep slope, and less likely to avalanche. It would then be a long walk across the high plateau before dropping down past the ski resort and onto the road. It would be a long trudge and we might be deep in cloud and strong winds. I estimate that we got to within a few hundred meters of the summit before stopping to take stock. I say estimate because I’d dropped the ball. At some point I’d lost concentration, I didn’t have a clear enough plan to stick to for when the going gets tough. Visibility dropped as we gained height and the wind pushed into us with ever greater force. I didn’t know where we were, I couldn’t be quite sure and pushing on, almost blindly, could get us into trouble. I pulled out our group shelter and we climbed inside. The thin layer of fabric sheltered us from the wind and gave me a place of calm to gather my thoughts. We snacked and hydrated and thought again. The concentration needed in these conditions can be exhausting and the thought of navigating through that for, perhaps, a couple of hours, with the wind snapping at us, sucked all of my confidence away. Jointly we decided to retrace our footsteps, have a cup of tea at the Hutchinson Hut and then back to Bob Scotts for the night. With a bit of regret and self critical disappointment, I stepped out from under the shelter.
More snow had vanished in those few hours. The scooped bowl that Hutchinsons sits in was filled in the night before but was looking bare that afternoon. We took a higher path above the valley, through the woodland only to find our way blocked by a small burn turned raging torrent. Slightly higher from our position a tree was jammed above the water that rushed down the hillside. It was turn back or trust the tree. The tree held, my heart slowly returned to its habitual location and pace.
Monday night and Bob’s place was empty. A lone tent just up the valley but only the two of us at the hut. We warmed and dried, relaxed and slept. The morning was an easy walk to the carpark and a short wait for someone to offer us a lift (hitching seems easier in mountain country, a more generous spirit perhaps or recognition of the tough conditions). A car ride and train later we were back at the van and hotel. We let them know we were back safe and we headed to the bar.***
I learned a lot on this trip and affirmed many things that I knew or that I should have had the self confidence in. It also highlighted my weak points, things to work on before the assessment but also just in life generally. It was five days that I won’t forget, an adventure with my partner, a story to tell.
*The Mountain Bothy Association are a charity that restore and maintain many bothies across the remote parts of the UK. These bothies are open year round and free to use but they are a charity – they take donations, have membership options and organise work parties to do the repairs.
**Bob Scott’s Memorial Hut is privately run as a charity. The bothy is free and open to all but donations are always much appreciated.
***The hotel informed us that the police were looking for a missing person, a lone walker who had not left any information with anyone so search teams couldn’t begin to look for them. They might have already been on their way home, or in the bar too, but there was no way of knowing. It really is worth taking the time to let someone know your route and timings (and let them know when you’re done!)