I had arranged with my friend Andy to spend the night at the Lairig Leacach Bothy on Friday night, go to Staoineag Bothy on Saturday and then head for home on Sunday. No problem I thought, a bit of snow will be a bonus too! There was much more than a "bit" of snow...
As we reached Spean Bridge early afternoon, I was starting to worry. The weather all week had implied snow at high-level. I could see the tops and they were full of snow, I was worried I could make the usual place I park my car at around the 200m contour, up the rough track from Coire Choille Farm. Reaching this spot, I needn't have worried as the snow line started just up from where we parked.
Looking up at the snowy hills it was proper dressing up time, gaiters on, gloves, just a pity I also had a 10kg bag of coal to strap onto my rucksack. The bag of coal reminded me of my first ever visit here, which I also visited with Andy, back in June 2016. It was a beautiful day then, today it was full on winter. I have however visited the bothy around 8 times since then, so I was confident of the route to take over the Lairig Leacach to the bothy.
We headed up the forest track and it quickly became an issue that my fitness was lacking, I had no reserves and with the 25kg on my back, it was hard going. By the time we reached the gate at the end of the forest track, it was knee deep snow and the Lairig Leacach pass ahead looked glorious. We passed a group of people at this point, a family, who had decided to visit the bothy and were on their way back - We had footprints to follow at least.
The Lairig Leacach in Winter As we headed up the pass, I kept stopping for a breather, I was in a bad way with no stamina. As we neared the small gorge below Cruach Innse, the sky was grey and the rain had started. I struggled on through the rain and wind hoping to reach the ford, knowing that it is always further from the gorge than you think. Eventually we reached it, but it was hidden beneath the deep snow so we walked right over it, with only my memory of the surroundings to realise this. Shortly after we stopped for a breather, the land and the sky were the same colour and if we weren't in a narrow mountain pass and instead on a plateau, then navigation would have been an issue... I took this video of our situation.
This break allowed me to reflect on my situation. I had set off in bright sunlight, but on the way up the pass, it had turned into rain and strong wind. The wind was much warmer than expected, so I kept on my "soft" gloves that are not waterproof. I realised that the gloves were soaking and I also realised that my fingers were numb with the tips feeling swollen due to my tight grip on my walking sticks. The effort of moving with a heavy pack through difficult terrain, with the complacency of knowing that you weren't too far from the destination was making me careless. As I moved my fingers to help to restore the blood flow, it was painful. I noted this for future use - Make sure the winter gloves are easily accessible.
I asked Andy to take a turn with my pack as I was knackered. I put on his pack (it made no difference) and we soldiered on through drifts past the watershed, some so deep that we doubled back to find a different route. I had checked my GPS at our recent stop and knew that we had just 1.5km to go, but we were at the highest and snowiest part of our journey. It was starting to get dark. The usual journey of 1.5 hours had now taken 3 hours and we still had to
get to find the bothy. Following the footprints, I also saw the base of Stob Ban, where the trees beside the burn that flows past the bothy were visible, they are higher up and in the deep snow, their black branches could be seen. I knew that you have to walk past the bothy to reach these trees. The light was fading fast.
We had just avoided a snow drift and walked over a rise. And there it was, the Lairig Leacach Mountain Bothy in the fading light. I was mighty relieved to see it. We opened the door and I took off the rucksack and enjoyed that floating feeling of getting rid of a heavy pack. I went outside and took a photo of this welcome refuge. As I took the picture, Andy stood at the door.
Now that we had made it, Our first challenge was water, it was time to melt snow as the nearby river was missing underneath. Once the snow was melted in sufficient quantity and the water problem has been solved, it was time to party - not the kind of party that folks do in the cities, that involves music, dancing and electricity, this party involves gas stoves, food, drink and a nice warm fire. The music is provided by the wind, the fire is the TV and light show. Conversation is the order of the day in the bothy, no electricity, just two friends who have known each other since they were boys talking about life in general. We were 8km from the nearest house with no phone signal, but we had coal, we had booze, we had food and all was good with the world. I wonder what I would have thought as a rebellious 15-year-old if I had known that I would be sitting in a snowbound bothy in the Central Highlands with my friend Andy, 33 years in the future? I would like to think that my 15-year-old self would have been pleased.
I had a fantastic sleep and slept right through to 8 am. During the course of the previous day, we had agreed that carrying on to Staioneag would not be wise. The main reasons were distance and lack of knowledge of the terrain under the deep snow, where a 5-meter gorge is not on the map and the snow was managing to hide them. It was quite mild and the snow bridges formed were becoming less trustworthy. We knew that if we stayed another night at this bothy also, we would get cabin fever as we would quickly run out of coal and booze and wandering about in the deep snow was not an option that we fancied.
So it was time to do my joint MO duties for this bothy and write a list for all the things that require attention in the coming year, there is quite a list, but apart from a couple of more urgent things, most are cosmetic. I also spent some time taking some photos of the situation in which we found ourselves.
Where the footsteps endWithout snowshoes and good knowledge of the terrain ahead, we decided it was not wise to continue on past the Lairig Leacach bothy. Inside the Lairig Leacach The sleeping quartersThe Lairig Leacach Bothy
We left the bothy a little before mid-day. It was feeling warmer and the snow was less firm so we were breaking through it sometimes up to our waists. It was tough going. On the plus side, it was a lot brighter so the scenery could be seen.
Finally, after three hours we had made it back the car. It had taken 3 hours without the coal and I had again struggled - my lack of fitness needs some attention! Disappointed to have cut the trip short, I was reassured that it was the most sensible thing to do. My long weekend of adventure had been reduced to just one night, but in that deep snow I had experienced enough adventure for one weekend.