Bothy and Ben weekend, 10/11 March 2017

The forecast for the weekend was particularly grim with a promise of rain and sleet fired by 40mph winds on Saturday and a big warm fog on Sunday. So when lugging my skis across the snow-free head of Loch Glascarnoch I was surprised there were three others following, namely Sheena, Susan and David. Although we had all initially signed up to the two-day circuit of Loch Mullardoch, such was the forecast we needed an alternative. Something equally big and epic but not foolhardy. Overnighting in a bothy with a traverse of Beinn Dearg I thought would fit and bill.

One vehicle was left at the craft centre carpark near Loch Broom for our return, then we drove the to Loch Glascarnoch to start. If anyone was a little sleepy after an early start, plunging our bare feet in the icy waters of Abhainn a’ Gharbhirain woke us up. On the far side we could begin skinning, heading due north into the impressive amphitheatre bordered by Cona Mheall and Am Faochagach. For a steady five kilometres we moved into its quiet depths, the slope steepening above Loch na Still and forcing us on a series of switchbacks. Small avalanches had left trails of debris and I looked above at big overhanging cornices. All morning the clouds had thickened and reaching the bealach we were greeted by a whiteout and our world changed. The half-kilometre length of Loch Prille had vanished beneath a huge snowdrift. I’d been here a good many times in winter but had never seen this quantity of snow, even in 2010. We could just make out the bowl of the loch and this guided us to the watershed at nearly 600 metres, snow now hurrying in from the east, straight into our faces. Here we peeled off skins and at first skated on a slight decline over a featureless waste until the contours bunched and we ran freely, carving great turns on our descent to Gleann Beag. David shouted that he could see the bothy, a tiny building alone in the frozen emptiness. Skiing right to the door was a dream fulfilled. A fine refuge from the rain, though three months of winter now seeped from the thick stone walls and I for one began to shiver. We dug a hole a metre deep to reach the river, boiled water for brews all round, and discussed the merits of braving the wetness to search for firewood. No one was especially keen. Someone mentioned the highly flammable resin found in ancient bogwood and someone else that she’d carted in a load of kindling. So with empty sacs and fantasies of a roaring fire we skied a kilometre up the glen, crossed the frozen burn and fell upon the old roots like a last act of plunder. ‘Go for the driest pieces’, I said, and received looks as filthy as our rucksacs were becoming, now all stuffed with peat-smeared roots. David overloaded his, fell over backwards and couldn’t get up, others with unbalanced loads seemed to be practising a new form of locomotion. Back at the bothy and armed with a pickaxe and pruning saw I sorted the sodden mandibles into three piles – wet, very wet, and aquatic. Nobody believed any of this would burn. It did. We built an edifice of sizzling logs and the flames leapt, we humbled at the miracle and sat around it steaming and revelled in the warmth of ancient suns. Our talk roved widely from a general thumbs-down for freeze-dried to the merits of beaver reintroduction – mostly thumbs up –  to whether mindfulness trumps other distractions such as, well, bird-watching, all helped along by Susan’s homebrew gin and David’s Dalwhinnie.

David claimed he slept a like a log, the rest of us thanks to the wind and unforgiving floorboards slept a little less soundly. After a little initial weariness we mixed muesli with burn water, downed two or three brews, and set off. A mild morning with thick cloud. Careful navigation in a windless fog got us to Cnap Coire Loch Tuath at 884 metres. Here a gauzy sun and faint shadows began to show and climbing towards Ceann Garbh we emerged into a bright brilliant world, an unbroken sky and white peaks in all directions, especially the prospect of Beinn Dearg, only the line of its famous dyke visible through the snowcover. In the glens a dense blanket of cloud lingered. We skied the south slope of Ceann Garbh, our speed carrying us across the small plateau and we gathered here to begin the 300 metre ascent of Beinn Dearg. Too steep for skins we stowed away our planks and climbed up, the snow so hard in places I wielded my axe for stepcutting.

At the summit we could see from Ben Wyvis to the Fannichs to Suilven and beyond. As the cloud base appeared to be rising we didn’t linger, skiing the southwest shoulder in perfect spring snow. At the 850m we became engulfed again in mist and it was back to tricky compass work with Sheena and David as navigators and Susan as foil. We negotiated the steep and loaded west flank, stopping for a snack at the head of Allt Mhucarnaich, then for the last time we skinned up to the col just east of Beinn Enaiglair and simply pointed our skis downwards and took off. A kilometre and a half of typical Scottish backcountry, tracing burn lines, edging small defiles, fighting the soft surface with frantic pole plants, snowpatch hopping to about 400m where the snow finished, a lot higher than on the east side. I was a little concerned the final descent might require a huge fight through a dense conifer plantation but in fact a path materialised close to the forestry edge then a broad and mossy way switchbacking to the main road and all touched down some eight hours after leaving the bothy. To bury the memory of freeze-dried and answer the usual carbohydrate cravings the weekend was rounded off with a visit to the Beauly chippy. A fish supper never tasted better.