A few weeks ago I had obtained a new spade to drop off at the Lairig Leacach bothy - If you are not aware of bothies, they are a basic shelter in the wilder locations in Scotland. They are so basic that the bothy spade is what you use to dig a hole when you need to go to the toilet! The downside of this open air arrangement is the risk of being stumbled upon by someone walking past and if the Midges are out (small biting insects that attack in swarms) then it can be a challenging experience. The rules of the bothy spade is that if you need to go, walk far away from the bothy and water sources, at least 200 metres from the bothy and 60 metres from water, then walk further again. The trade off for the 19th century amenities and biting insect hazard is the fantastic views that can be had and no modern convenience can compete.
With the excuse of having a spade delivery, I decided to drop it off and carry on from the Lairig Leacach bothy and walk to Meanach Bothy and make a weekend of it. My pal Bob who had visited the Lairig in June with me, had climbed the Grey Corries that weekend but had one more of them to do, the outlying Munro Sgurr Choinich Mor. This would be his 100th Munro and being in the locality, it would be a fine opportunity to climb it.
I also decide to take my dog Digger, who is a Jack Russell cross. We got Digger second-hand from a charity when he was a year old so we do not really know what different breeds he is composed off - he is mostly Jack Russell. I take him on day walks in the hills often and there has been many occasions when I have had to turn back due to him shivering and looking miserable. Digger has very little hair on his underside and he feels the cold, he is also spoiled rotten and has become used to his home comforts. He will not lie down in his bed at night unless I put his blanket over him - he is a creature of habit is Digger and this was going to be testing for him...
We headed off early and stopped for the compulsory hot dog at the local shop at Spean Bridge, whilst Digger watched longingly from the car boot. We then parked at the usual spot past Corriechoile and headed off for the Lairig Bothy. Reaching the bothy I stopped in to drop off the spade and speak to the residents, who were MBA members. We then headed off over the hill the towards Meanach bothy, a walk of around 12 km from where we parked the car. It was grey and overcast, bad for pictures but pleasant for walking.
I really enjoyed the walk, there were some fine views and the path was small, winding and rough in an entertaining way. The path rises up to nearly 600 metres before it drops down into the Glen. Meanach bothy is located past the watershed of Glen Nevis. I am not really sure if this bit of glen is called a different name but looking down from our vantage point we saw our destination.
There is a ruin (marked as Luibelt on the map) of what looks like a decent sized Victorian era house across the river from Meanach. The bothy itself sits in the middle of what looks like a field, but the reality is that it is a bog - You can expect wet feet around here.
Meanach is a fine bothy with two rooms, when we got there it was empty so we unpacked our bedding in the room with the wooden sleeping platform and claimed our space on the comfiest bit.
Whilst we got organised and started cooking. Digger wandered about outside and kept running back in after 5 minutes all shaking and itchy from the Midges. He was having difficulty understanding why it was so uncomfortable outside...Digger then kept looking at me wondering when we were going home. His usual routine had been majorly disrupted and he simply did not understand!
Little did this little dog know that he was staying the night here in this old house with a strenuous walk back to Corriechoile in the morning via the top of the Munro, Sgurr Choinich Mor, approximately 14 km of challenging terrain.
Whilst we were settling in two walkers approached from the East. They were looking a bit nervous as they approached the bothy, as if to walk past, so Bob went out and waved to them. They approached the bothy with trepidation as they had thought that maybe the bothy was our house! We explained it was a bothy and anyone can stay so these two young lads from Antwerp in Belgium gratefully setup for the night in the other room. They explained to us that Belguim has a population of 10 million people and it is a small place with little in the way of wild places left, so they were taking the opportunity to wander in the wilds of Scotland for a few days. Speaking to them I felt lucky and privileged that even though I live in a town of 100,000 people, I can drive for just half an hour, park up and lose myself in my local Ochil Hills, where I can often wander for hours without meeting anyone.
About 8pm we were joined by a couple of volunteers who were part of a support team who were using the bothy to feed a runner who was trying to complete the Ramsay Round which, is a gruelling 56 mile route featuring 28,500 feet of climbing that has to be completed in less than 24 hours! The runner was due to pass at 2am so they were going to get a couple of hours sleep then set up and feed the runner then they too would run away into the night to provide support further on - I was impressed at their dedication and organisation. As for the challenge, getting about these steep hills in the dark and in hill fog is a superb navigational feat made all the more impressive as they are running!
This is what I like about staying in bothies, you share a space with a mixed bag of interesting people and you generally come away feeling that you have learned something and that you are richer for having met them.
When it got dark we retired into our respective sleeping bags. Digger had a plastic mat beside me on the wooden platform and I kept my sleeping bag open and lay it across him. At 1am the support team awoke and very considerately prepared the meal in the porch making very little noise. When the runner appeared we heard them discussing the challenge and then they were all gone into the night. I felt Digger and he was cold… I dozed off again only to be woken up by Digger’s vigorous shivering! I pulled him onto my air bed and moved onto the wooden platform, wrapping him in my sleeping bag. I woke up in the morning and Digger was now warm and comfortable on my air bed and under my sleeping bag whilst I was laying on a hard wooden platform! If it had been winter it would have been much worse so it is safe to say that Digger is not a bothy dog.
We made breakfast and then bid farewell to the guys from Belgium, wishing them an enjoyable journey and we set off towards the looming bulk of Sgurr Choinich Mor, the summit of which was cloaked in cloud. We followed the river and we were quickly soaked in the boggy ground, we had to ford rivers as well so by the time we reached the bogwood strewn foot of the mountain my boots were full of water.
Grey but warmThe grass is deceiving - this was boggy ground. Bogwood everywhereThe remains of the ancient forests are apparent where the peat has been washed away. These trees were everywhere once but no only this remains.
Luckily it was muggy and fairly warm with no wind, despite the heavy cloud laden skies and we set off up the steep slope. As we climbed we could see the Belgian guys in the distance heading down Glen Nevis - I wonder what there thoughts were seeing us heading up a steep mountainside disappearing into the cloud.
This was a relentless climb, quite steep in places and my fitness was very quickly shown up as being wanting as Bob and Digger had to wait for me frequently! I took my last picture, looking back as we were being enveloped by cloud.
After the cloud closed in, we soldiered on and eventually reached the summit. We then headed off along the ridge scrambling down from the top. My head for heights was challenged at some bits as there was some quite healthy drops which stifled my urge to take any more pictures as I was simply concentrating on where I was going. At one point I decided to scramble over a boulder field instead of following the usual route that scrambled down above a heady drop. This caused Digger difficulties getting across the boulders and Bob stepped and rescued him by carrying the wee dog over the tricky bit.
By the time we reached the Bealach between Sgurr Coinnich Mor and Stob Coire Easain the cloud was thinning but it made the climb up to Stob Coire Easain look a pretty challenging scramble. I was concerned for just for my selfish self, but as we stood discussing it, Bob was also concerned for Digger who lay down immediately when we stopped - he was very tired and obviously not a dog who enjoyed scrambling, a bit like his owner... Bob’s instinct was to carry on up the ridge but after some discussion it was decided that it may be better (but not easier) to bypass the top. There was a visible route which gave certainty, but we would have to clamber over the boulder fields below the western cliffs to bypass the summit. Being a visible alternative it seemed safer with Digger in tow, in case following the ridge involved any dog deterring scrambles
We set off over some pretty loose and steep boulder fields, the boulders were mainly slippery quartz and there was some big boulders too, some of these boulders were perfect cubes which looked almost manufactured. At times, as you committed your weight to them, the boulders would move and there would be a nervous moment when you hoped they did not move too much on the steep slope as there was a lot of big rocks above us... This boulder field of deep piles of interlocked rocks has been here for a very very long time under the crumbling cliffs above - Bob was skipping over them but I was struggling and Digger was needing help most of the way too, courtesy of me poking him forward with my walking stick! Bob headed up towards a grassy slope that he managed to follow pretty well, I headed for one further down and I struggled to get a grip on it - my fitness levels were tested here on this steep loose slope with a 15kg pack on my back and I basically crawled up it. As I dithered up this slope, Bob by this time had reached good ground. He took his pack off and came back to rescue Digger who was hating every minute of jumping from boulder to boulder at the top. In truth, I was too, as it was steep with loose large rocks, it needed concentration and strong legs. From this location, looking back to the ridge we had bypassed, it became apparent that the slope of the ridge that looked daunting when we were beneath it was actually much less steep than I had thought - Bob’s initial instincts were right. By avoiding the ridge and coming this way we had definitely chosen the harder route. It was a fantastic work out though!
After reaching the gentle grassy slopes after the boulder field, we made our way along the long descending ridge that would lead us ever closer towards my car. Digger alternated between being very tired and then suddenly running about with a sudden reserve of energy. The descent was relentless but fairly placid until it ended at a very steep drop above a small reservoir. This slope took me a while to negotiate, with the Midges capitalising on my vulnerability, whilst Bob and Digger waited patiently at the bottom.
We eventually reached the car for the 4 hour drive down the road, we had walked 14 kilometers that day over some pretty steep and difficult terrain, but we had made it. Digger jumped with huge relief into the car boot and immediately lay down to sleep.
At some of the bits I had really hated that walk as I had been outside my comfort zone. Now that I had finished it I was elated - it was fantastic. I was sore the next few day with the workout I had put myself through carrying my heavy pack - I had even packed my tent and not used it! One thing I have learnt from my adventures to date though is that the hard difficult things, although maybe not enjoyable at the time, are the things you get the most out of and will remember with fondness... You can keep your luxuries and your fancy things, for me, this is living.