IntroductionI had a spare weeks leave to book which I couldn’t carry over to 2014. Long before winter started , but available slots diminishing, I grabbed the week starting Monday 9th December – with the vague notion I’d use the time to go climbing in Scotland somewhere. Having had a fantastic 2 weeks climbing with rgg in July and two idyllic weeks away with my wife, one in April and one in September, this trip would have to be strictly low budget.
I set my sights on a tent based expedition including a traverse of the Grey Corries range – starting from the top of Ben Nevis, at 4406ft, the highest mountain in the UK. This range is currently a blank on the map on SP. I had written up the neighbouring Mamore Range from a summer and a winter visit 2010-11. I fancied given good conditions I would traverse the entire range and have enough photos and memories to put together another ‘areas and ranges’ page...
My plan was optimistic to say the least. I had been phenomenally lucky when I visited the Mamores in nearly the same week in 2010 – fortuitously coinciding with the coldest snap in the UK for 80 years. I spent three days completely alone in a winter wonderland, bathed in rosy pink light when it wasn’t golden, with abundant snow – and with temperatures down in the minus 20’s. The chances of being so lucky in 2013 were slim. Most likely I’d be battling with high winds, rain and sleet – and with the additional handicap of a 16 hour night to contend with. December in the Scottish Highlands is not normally the most attractive option for a ‘camping holiday’...
The other limiting factor was I was nursing Achilles tendonitis and other annoyances – and I probably didn’t have the form to manage an ambitious high level winter route – even had conditions been good. But in the beginning of November, I was feeling optimistic: there had been an early first winter snow fall and the MWIS Blogs were full of happy tales and stunning photos. Hopefully - if I put in some extra gym-time and was very careful with my tendonitis over the next month...
But it wasn’t to be.
A succession of warm wet Atlantic fronts came sweeping across the country in the last week of November. The blogs confirmed that the wonderful early snow base vanished within a few days. And in the first week of December I still couldn’t run. I was still being forced to keep up what fitness I had with erratic bursts on the cross-trainer at my local gym – fitted in round long days at work.
But I still had the second week of December booked off. Did I really want to spend it mooching at home, looking out at the rain in between making wistful incursions
on SummitPost – or worse still, being tempted to battle the unceasing flow of yet more work e-mails?
An idea began to grow.
Walking the dog had to happen without fail morning and night – whatever the weather. In the depths of winter this meant getting out in the woods by torchlight in the darkness of before and after work. After all, Mr Woof wasn’t bothered by the mere trifles of rain or darkness.
Thus it came to be that I bundled him, plus an absurdly heavy rucksack, into my car at 3am on Wednesday 11th December. The Monday and Tuesday, although officially on leave, I still had too much work to do – so, I confess, I did battle a few work e-mails. So we left midweek. The weather forecast and the blogs were terrible.
We had a ball. But first let me introduce you to Mr Woof
Mr Woof a.k.a. Jake was born in October 2003. The first I knew of his involvement in my life was one day in early January 2004, when I telephoned my wife at lunchtime...
“...where are you? You sound like you are in the car...”
“Well... I am – I’m on the way to Sheffield!”
“Sheffield! You’re supposed to be at work! Why the hell are you going to Sheffield?” I was getting a bad feeling about this... my wife had been behaving oddly the last few days...
“Erm – I’m on my way to see a man about a dog... look – can’t talk now, I’m driving – see you later!”
I had to return to the business of being at work myself the rest of the afternoon. But as I drove home in the wet darkness of a January evening, the feeling of foreboding came back. I had nothing particular against dogs... well, not strictly true – they slobbered and breathed dog-breath in your face and if you took them anywhere you would be forever picking up dog-pooh. I had no ambition at all to live with one...
“Oh – Jake! Say hello to... Daddy!”
I stood frozen in shock and horror as a pale yellow hair-ball came bounding down the hall towards me, tail wagging.
The next few days were a blur of little patches of wee and worse on the carpet. My three children were with us that weekend (my wife was... away) – and I just remember the calls at intervals “Daddy, Daddy – he’s done it again!” I remained in too much of a state of stunned disbelief that Leila could do this to us to complain. But then after about two weeks something changed in me.
It was when I realised that the little hairy brute actually loved me.
Since then Jake has taught me what it is to have a friendship with a dog. It is true for example; what they say about a dog always being pleased to see you. But also wherever you go whatever you do with them; it is always exciting - so long as they are included. And they talk. I don’t mean go WOOF – although incidentally Jake will, if you ask him to. No – they
just communicate – and they are listening and watching us all the time. I didn’t realise what a range of facial expressions a dog has – or quite the diversity of expression through the medium of the tail. How anyone could want to dock a dogs tail I cannot imagine... Jake flies his tail proudly like a banner – signalling his general bonhomie to the world as he trots through the woods. He can also signal “who are you – are you friendly?” And his tail practically flies off when he is saying “Hail fellow – well met!” But conversely, when he is sad or ill, it droops to half mast or less... When he feels downright threatened it sinks even lower - to cover his testicles... (which he still has by the way!)
Finally – remembering this is a Trip Report for SummitPost, not a piece for the Kennel Club: Jake, a.k.a. Mr Woof, is a wonderful companion in the mountains. In his 10 years of life he has scaled numerous summits, including that of Scafell Pike, highest in England. He has swum in mountain lakes and cocked his leg on the odd island. He has expeditioned in Scotland and the Yorkshire Dales, staying in tents and mountain bothies. In fact so long as he doesn’t have to try and rock climb, climb over fences or walk across boulder fields, he has been up for it all.
And he didn’t mind getting out of bed at 4am to join me on a mad adventure in the depths of a Scottish winter.
All photos from here onwards taken with a mobile phone - didn't fancy risking it with an SLR!
The weather forecast was so awful I had dropped my plan to camp. It would have been too challenging living with nearly 40kg of saturated Golden Retriever, in my little one man tent. So instead I selected a route up in the highlands where we could stay in bothies – those basic little stone shelters out in the wilds – and maintained through the good offices of the Mountain Bothy Association. Tent or not though – Jake was still going to be getting wet. Very wet. I therefore took it upon myself to jam a bag of dry logs into the bottom of my rucksack – anticipating that even if I found firewood, it would be too sodden to burn. You can be lucky and find dry firewood collections in some Bothies. Naturally anything used must be replaced however – and I was sure that one if not both of the places I planned to visit were a very long way from any likely sources.
Preparations took up most of the Tuesday afternoon. Jake became anxious seeing the trappings of an expedition on display. His anxiety was as to whether this was one which involved him – or was it another where sadly, he was left behind with Mum – or worse still, dispatched to the kennels. At an early stage I made sure he saw his towel, lead and one of his toys; a small soft pink ‘piggie’ going in... He was partially reassured – but still followed me everywhere as I gathered things together.
At such as 4am of a morning he’d normally greet me with a few weak thumps of his tail, before going back to sleep. But at this time on the Wednesday of departure – he was up and ready and practically wagging his tail off. He followed me out into the black wet street – and was virtually in the boot of the car, before I’d even opened it. I was quite overwhelmed by his happiness and excitement.
There you are then: if you want to make yourself feel fortunate in going off into the wilds in the rain and darkness of a particularly miserable winter; just take a dog with you.
You may ask – why 4am though?
Game plan called for a five hour drive from Yorkshire to Crianlarich, a little village up in the Highlands, with a railway station. From there we’d catch a train, scheduled to depart soon after 10am and travel for an hour and something up one of the most beautiful stretches of the West Highland Railway Line (well, beautiful if you could see it...). We’d exit the train at Corrour – the highest, remotest and perhaps even most pointless little railway station in the UK.
So we left at 4am in order to make sure we caught the train leaving Crianlarch at around 10.20am – so we’d in turn be able to set out across the swamps by 11.30am – and with just enough time to lug my sack of logs over the mountains to the reach the remote bothy of Loch Chiarain - before darkness fell at around 4.30pm.
Fortified in my case by a strong mug of coffee, we hit the road – and drove a weary 200 odd miles in complete darkness. Just short of Crianlarch – and having passed largely unseen; the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond – we made a wee-stop at the Falls of Falloch, by now dimly discernible in the sombre light of around 8.30am. Jake duly cocked his leg before this spectacular water fall – and disappeared off into the undergrowth to attend to some other business.
A little over an hour later, at Crianlarch, we had shared some breakfast and having locked up the car joined the train. Although the day was now well underway, I noticed that daylight, such as it was, was markedly dimmer than back home, 260 miles to the south – even making allowance for the heavy overcast. All the lights in the carriage were turned on – which made it look even darker outside.
Jake had been a little leery of climbing into the train – having to jump across the gap between platform and carriage. But now inside he made himself comfortable in the wider floor space of a luggage storage area – close to where I laid my rucksack – pregnant with logs. In fact I fancied that the suspension of the carriage dipped a bit on that side...
Beinn a Bhricc 876m
An hour and twenty minutes later, Corrour Station looked desolate under the lowering clouds scudding overhead. I bundled rucksack and a slightly hesitant dog out of the carriage and onto the rain slicked platform. We de-camped to a muddy bit of wasteland adjacent to the railway line, to allow me to make final adjustments to my pack and wrestle on a pair of gaiters.
Quite uncharacteristically Jake looked a little lost and uncertain as it became apparent that we were leaving what little civilisation there was behind us. When we were ready to leave and set off in the direction of dark hillsides crowned with even darker clouds, I could see he wasn’t quite sure what to make of things – perhaps wondering where on earth his new home was going to be...
The game plan was that we headed southwest over Leum Uilleim, at 909m, the higher of two rounded hills which (if wasn’t for the cloud) normally dominate the skyline at Corrour. On the other side I planned to descend to Loch Chiarain Bothy, situated by the remote and tiny mountain lake of the same name. However, with the poor visibility I elected to take a slightly more direct route over the top of Beinn a Bhricc, the lesser of the two summits at 876m.
Thirty years earlier I had climbed Leum Uilleim, also in winter, but in snowy conditions. I was on an escape from the mad world of the hospital accident and emergency department where I worked as a junior doctor. Perhaps desperate to put us much distance as possible between myself and the latest round of weekend night shifts, I elected to camp right on the summit. The night turned out to be every bit as sleepless as a work night – just without the succession of drunk people to suture... First my tent was buried under heavy snowfall and I had to get up and dig myself out several times to prevent suffocation... Next the snow turned to rain – and I had to get up and re-pitch it when all my snow anchors came out... And finally, just as I was nodding off around dawn, a Force 12 gale sprang up – and actually shredded my long suffering tent...
Back to 2013: Jake and I followed what appeared to be a little frequented path initially – and as on the map, after a few hundred metres this dwindled away to nothing. We came to follow the bank of a little stream flowing out of a grim looking valley headed by a low col between the two mountains. Underfoot became what I have come to know as typical Scottish ‘two mile an hour’ terrain: a hummocky mix of sphagnum moss, heather and bilberry shrubs, wild thyme – and all interspersed with squelchy patches of bog.
Inspired now by the new profusion of smells and the exciting prospect of swiftly flowing water to dip in and out of Jake lost his initial uncertainty. Tail wagging and tongue lolling he began trotting a criss-cross path across the hillside – always ahead – and anything up to a hundred metres or more away. Every so often he would pause to have a good roll and a kick – his way of saying he was happy to be where he was, as well as getting his back scratched by the woody stems of the heather.
I had to say, despite occasional squally rain showers and the leaden weight on my back, I was happy to be there too. We soon left the little cluster of buildings that was Corrour Station far behind. There was the great feeling of being out in the wilds, spiced by the earthy aroma of sphagnum moss with the subtle sharpness of wild thyme. If it smelled good to me, I imagined it could be bordering on doggy heaven with a nose some 200 times as sensitive as mine.
The clouds continued to swirl darkly above – every so often parting enough to give glimpses of the col up ahead. Nearly two miles (3km) from Corrour we reached the slopes of the head wall of the little valley and started plod laboriously up towards the col. Well, I plodded - Jake continued following his more sinuous course – every so often getting dangerously close to being out of earshot. With low cloud rolling around I began to become anxious at the possibility of losing him and called him back; to stick with me.
I was pleased to reach the relative level of the col, but senses were on alert as we were now in the cloud. I set my compass for a course which I hoped would bring us up to the summit of Beinn a Bhric from the middle of the very broad and ill defined col. After a timed march over increasingly boggy terrain I judged we had reached this mid-point – and turned right to follow the compass bearing. We were soon climbing uphill again – up slopes of hummocky grass and moss, interrupted by little boulder fields and knolls.
As we crested what I perceived to be the edge of the summit plateau the extraordinary started happening: the clouds ahead started to be breeched by glowing beams of golden light as the muted December sun started to break through. Even Jake was distracted from his eternal scent following – and paused to sit and look at what was happening in the sky.
Before we could really take in what was happening, the clouds were whisked away from us by strong winds blowing around the summit area – and were treated to something that I hadn’t anticipated... we had a VIEW.
Right up on the summit plateau now, we could see the low sun apparently setting to the left, far over in the west. Over to the right, towards the north and with nearest point about 8 miles away, was the entire Grey Corries Range - which I had initially set my sights on traversing this trip. And at the very far end of that - and at least 10 miles distant was the brooding bulk of Ben Nevis – complete with a few snow patches, left over from the snow falls of a month before.
Regretting the lack of a proper camera I whipped out my mobile phone from the dry pocket it was residing in. Without really thinking what I was doing I snapped three images in succession as I panned from left to right across the far horizon. My mobile is nothing special as a camera – less than ¼ the resolution of my aged Nikon. Nevertheless the photos came out very well – and it wasn’t until I had the photos up on the screen at home that I noticed that somehow Mr Woof had managed to feature in each one...
Despite the amazing clarity of the air now, the wind continued to howl across the rocky summit plateau and in wet clothes I was soon feeling a bit of a chill. A few hundred metres walk towards the sun brought the little mountain lake of Loch Chairain into view – and there was a tiny building just discernible, at the very southern extremity of the little expanse of water.
“There you are” I said to my companion “I told you I’d find you a home for the night.”
It was 2.30pm – approaching mid afternoon – and yet the sun over in the west was definitely setting. I was finding the incredibly short day of Scottish Highland mid-winter hard to adjust to, despite so many experiences over the years. Looking down on the tiny dot that was our destination, I felt a pressure to get down there and get settled in before the interminable darkness set in, little more than an hour and a half in the future. The distance wasn’t great – but we were back to rough ‘2 mile an hour’ terrain and I could see that the bothy was on the other side of the river draining from the lake. At this distance it wasn’t clear where we would be able to cross. There was the possibility we’d have to completely circumnavigate the lake, adding as much as half an hour to our timings over very boggy looking ground.
Loch Chairain Bothy
It took half an hour of knee wrenching descent through rough tussock, to reach the river. The tiny concrete and stone building of the bothy was now just 100m way – on the other river bank. But we wouldn’t need to circle the lake. An area of disturbance spanning the river turned out, as I had hoped, to be a just submerged line of stepping stones. Despite gaiters my boots had become soaked hours earlier. With most of the stones being a few inches below the water level, I could see that my already damp feet were about to become wetter than ever. But, at least I wouldn’t have to wade.
My hairy companion had already clocked his home for the night. An avid swimmer, he needed no encouragement to plunge into the water and swim across – arriving on the other side before I did. Having cocked his leg and claimed territorial rights he got stuck straight into the new smorgasbord of aromas to be found on a level grassy area, leading to our lonely looking shelter.
At 3pm the sun was now very low on the horizon and I wasted little time getting inside the gloomy interior of our temporary home. As accommodation goes bothies tend to be pretty basic. This was one was no exception, being just a stone shell enclosing two empty ground floor rooms – and a loft area. If the light was dim outside, it was frankly dark inside – and I soon had my head-torch out. A quick tour revealed that the most comfortable place was undoubtedly the wooden floored loft. However, I wasn’t even going to try to get Jake up the ladder like stairs leading up there. So I picked the cleanest looking of the two grimy stone floored ground floor rooms.
I turned my attention to the matter of bodily comfort. I was wet from the waist down, especially my feet, which thanks to my leaky boots and the river, were now saturated. Jake was saturated from the toes up. There wasn’t so much as a tree let alone dead wood within miles of this very isolated bothy. As I had anticipated, there wasn’t even kindling, let alone dry firewood. It had been worth the effort to come prepared...
But the open fire-place in the room I had selected for us to live in was going to be a challenge. For a start it was pitifully small. In addition whoever had last used it had used poor quality coal, had made a half hearted attempt to burn some rubbish – and had not even attempted to clean the fireplace before they had left. The final insult was that since then a lot of rain had come down the chimney...
I spent twenty minutes scooping out hand-full’s of foul smelling black muck and unspeakable part charcoaled objects out of the fireplace. The small area of disintegrating concrete/stone hearth exposed was still far too wet to even think of getting a fire started in. I went back out into the low light of advanced sunset outside. A quick search for a suitable flat rock produced something better: a broken slate, blown down off the roof.
Back inside, the broken slate fitted the hearth. Having dried it off as best I could I then wedged it in place. It was not ideal – slates can split and worse, when heated up and it was still going to be difficult keeping the area dry with saturated half decayed mortar all round.
An hour’s intensive work produced a sustained but still pathetic little fire, with next to no drying power. Nevertheless I placed a small towel on the floor close to it – and tried to induce Mr Woof to lay on it – and hopefully to get a bit of him dried off, even if just his nose. But he had decided that my fire wasn’t worth bothering with – and parked himself on a bit of grubby floor away from it all. He was rather more enthusiastic about his dinner – and later mine, when I got the stove out.
If Jake wasn’t going to try and benefit from my little fire then I decided I would. I removed my boots and having emptied out the ponds inside tried to get them dried a little. But having eventually resorted to practically putting them in the fire, the best they did was get slightly warm to the touch – and they were as wet as ever next day.
At around 9pm I turned to the matter of getting settled for the night. Jake had already staked his claim on his patch of hard rough floor. Nothing would induce him to lay on the little rectangle of towel I had brought for him, even when I moved it nearer his chosen patch – and tried to tempt him with his piggie. So I merely rubbed him down with it – which wasn’t very effective in terms of drying him off, but did a lot more than the fire. Before settling completely we both went out for a final wee. The darkness outside was total – and with drizzle added in, we didn’t linger.
I laid out a sleeping mat and my sleeping bag, aware that it was going to be another nearly 12 hours until daylight. Not that the fire was anything to do with it, but it wasn’t at all cold. It was to be a very long night nevertheless. I was woken at intervals by various aches and pains from lying on the rock hard floor – and by the sound of squally rain lashing on the little window of our bedroom. Every so often, I was aware of Jake grunting softly beside me – or shifting restlessly on the even harder surface of his bed – without so much as the little towel under him.
One by one, the next 12 hours passed. By 8am our window had become dimly visible as a dull grey rectangle in the otherwise total darkness of the bothy. Within half an hour I began to be able to pick out objects, including the dull mound that was my companion. I reached out and laid a hand on the fur of his back...
My action set off an immediate explosion of tail wagging accompanied by the audible soft drumming of said tail on stone floor. With a brief stretch Jake was on his feet – and nosing me, as if to say ‘’Come on – it’s daytime now!” and I had the impression he was relieved to see the end of the long night too.
Aching in various places but especially my back, I climbed stiffly out of my sleeping bag, crammed my now dry feet into still wet boots – and without doing the laces up took Jake out for his morning wee. The day was heavily overcast, with a light rain weeping steadily down from a dull grey sky. The cloud level was only a few hundred feet above and not very far up the hillside behind the bothy – and also across the river, up the slopes where Jake and I had descended the day before.
There was a great feeling of isolation and of being alone in the back of beyond. I had wanted to ‘get away from it all’ before the tension of Christmas. Looking around me, it was clear that I had done exactly that. And looking at Jake, tail flying at full mast, trotting from reed clump to reed clump, nosing and sniffing appreciatively I was glad to be sharing the experience with him.
Back inside the Bothy I continued to put the world on the map over a pint mug of sweet coffee. I mean; literally on the map, since I pored over the route for the day, checking compass bearings and writing them down on a piece of card. In the dim interior of the bothy I had to use my head torch to be able to read and write.
I gave Mr Woof his breakfast – which he wolfed down – and then immediately and shamelessly displayed interest in mine...
Packing up didn’t take long. I cleared out the now cold fireplace, leaving it in rather better condition than I had found it. Our pitiful fire had burned just about a third of the logs I’d brought – and most of my kindling. That plus being two ‘dog’ and two ‘me’ meals down, lightened my load a little bit, I was pleased to note.
Jake followed me outside when I went to dispose of the ashes. Past 9am by then, the day was about as bright as it was going to get – and it still seemed no more than twilight. With the still steady rain and dull pregnant looking sky, conditions were hardly attractive for being out... but Jake was not to be put off – and had passed from eager sniffing, to sheer exuberance, which he displayed in a burst of rolling on the wet grass. He was now fully ready for whatever the day had to offer.
Bein na Cloiche 646m
Game plan for Day 2 started with slow ascent of the rough but gentle slopes behind the bothy. It was back to ‘two miles an hour’ terrain again. At some point soon we were going to enter the low cloud, so we were following a compass bearing as best I could over the lumpy ground, which required constant minor deviations to get round little gulleys, bluffs and stream beds. Springy heather clung to my gaiters and occasionally my still wet boots sunk into the odd patch of bog. Jake had no idea where we were going and with scent trails going all over the place bounded about, going every which way – to the point that I had to keep on calling him back...
“Jake! JAKE! NO! This way... No – THIS WAY!”
I wanted to find a tiny little lochan about 100m across, and about 1.5km out into the wilderness – and 150m above the bothy. Once there I had a bearing written down on a piece of card which should point us towards the summit of Bein na Cloiche – an indistinct high point in a dome shaped expanse of otherwise fairly featureless moorland. From there I planned to descend into another remote valley system with Loch Trieg at the far eastern extremity – and the top end of Glen Nevis at the western extremity. In this valley was another shelter, Staoineag Bothy – which I had visited three times over a period of about forty years. And Jake had been there before, approaching from a different direction, when I had taken him and two of my children there over seven years previously.
The distances and height gains involved with the day’s route were not great. Nonetheless, with constant rough terrain, a complete absence of paths, Jakes excursions – and the mist, rain and short hours of daylight – there was plenty enough for the day, especially with a still moderately heavy back pack.
I had reckoned on about three quarters of an hour to reach the little lochan from the bothy. At around the expected time we reached a distinct little water pool about 20m across. After momentary indecision I remembered that the pool I had identified on the map (and on Google Earth) had to be around 100m diameter. About five minutes later we found the correct one, hidden on the other side of a hummock.
We were now around 150m above our start. As we had ascended, I had the impression that the cloud level had risen a little too – but the lowest tendrils of mist weren’t far above us now. And although the rain had given way to drizzle, I had the feeling we’d be getting wetter again soon.
I was right on both counts: as we left the lochan on a new compass bearing, we were soon in thick mist – and it was soon back to a steady down pour. Of course, this was pretty much as expected. The remarkable thing though was the temperature: it was warm. According to the little thermometer dangling from my back pack it was 10°C – and yet exactly three years earlier it had been down in the minus twenties, just a few miles away and at similar elevation. Apart from the low winter light this could have been a poor day in the summer.
As we plodded upwards the terrain remained rough and it continued to be difficult to maintain a straight course. In navigational terms I wasn’t particularly concerned; expecting to eventually see evidence of the gently sloping moorland evolving into a discernible broad ridge – and the summit would be marked by another tiny lake.
We stumbled across the summit lake after about another half an hour’s steady uphill walk. The actual summit was marked by a little cairn on top of an undistinguished looking mound just off to the side. We stopped for a bite to eat, Jake now looking quite bedraggled in the steady fall of rain.
With no view there was no reason to dawdle in this rather grim place. I packed the snack things away and we squelched round the little lake, past the little cairn - and off the summit plateau. A minor dog’s leg put us onto a distinct crest heading north-east. We followed this for about 2km, until it broadened out into a flat area – and there we angled off onto the gentle slopes to the left of the ridge. Whilst gentle in angle the walking became more arduous, the soggy ground being heavily fissured and strewn with clinging heather and little boulder traps. Even Jake had to slow down – and I picked my way along very carefully, mindful that this would be an easy but very bad place to go and break an ankle – or worse still a leg. This could possibly have been termed ‘one and a half mile an hour’ terrain
At some point we popped out of the clouds and something of a vista opened up in front. The dark browns and yellows of the terrain underfoot gave way to pale green, in the distance – where I could see the valley we needed to reach, at the point of a river confluence. Staoineag Bothy wasn’t in sight, being well to the right and out of sight behind and beyond the heathery spur we were descending from.
The long gradual descent continued to be tiresome over a distance of around 3km/2 miles – until we reached the flat green expanse alongside one of the rivers. The green turned out to be tussocky grass, which gave way to a wet mix of grass and sphagnum moss. Whilst easier to walk on, the wet underfoot increased, with numerous boggy areas and shallow pools of water. My feet were as sodden as they could be so I generally did as Jake did – and splashed on through the pools. I drew the line at one particularly deep one though – and walked carefully round – whilst Jake happily plunged in and swam across.
The river we were following meandered across the flats, but eventually reached the main valley, where it joined a larger river; the two joining at the confluence we had observed from the slopes behind. Without quite reaching the confluence we angled to the right and east along the main valley until for the first time since leaving Corrour, we joined a path – following the south bank of the larger river.
Also for the first time since leaving Corrour we came across trees, or rather a few straggly apologies for trees; devoid of leaves and looking rather gaunt and dead. But trees along the river bank meant odd bits of driftwood trapped in the occasional rocky niche. It was all wet of course, but there were some seasoned pieces which were only superficially wet – and could be left at the bothy to dry out and be a welcome find for future visitors. I remembered from my last visit to Staoineag approaching seven years before, that I had to leave children and dog whilst I journeyed (in the rain) far and wide to pick up enough wood to make a fire.
Mr Woof, although at ten years of age quite an old guy (like me) was apparently still bursting with energy and must have been further invigorated by his swim. When I picked up my first bit of drift wood he lapsed into playfulness, assuming the stick was for him. Capering eagerly on the steep river bank, he started to jump up to try to bite my acquisition.
“No Sir! Get down you daft brute – this is not for you!!”
The steep rocky river bank was no place to start throwing a stick and with at least 20kg on my back I was even more loath to even try. We’d all end up in the river – including the stick. I had another thought: sometimes in the woods back at home, Jake liked to walk along just carrying his latest stick, like a trophy. In this way the odd branch even got to make it far enough to supplement supplies for the log-burner.
I found a stick of appropriate dimensions to be carried along a path at dog-level...
“Come here Sir – now... just FETCH IT...” and I proffered the stick slowly towards his muzzle, in as un-playful a way as possible.
But he wasn’t going to cooperate and growling with mock-ferociousness he immediately started trying to have a tug of war – which was even more likely to have me in the river than throwing.
Finally recognising that no game was forthcoming, Jake lapsed into uncharacteristic sulk – and resorted to ignoring me.
“Damn lay-about dog” I told him “I’ve carried all these bloody logs for your benefit. You could earn your keep and help me out here!”
From then on, he continued to totally ignore me every time I dipped down off the path and came struggling back up with a new branch – which I added to a growing bundle at the top of my rucksack. The weight on my shoulders was growing – and must have come to surpass the full load I’d set out with from Corrour the day before. Feeling rather virtuous I staggered slightly as I negotiated the slippery rocks adorning the path.
We rounded another spur created by a meander of the river – and there just a couple of hundred metres away was Staoineag Bothy, looking slightly castle-like, atop a steep sided knoll. As I remembered, it stood with a little clutch of trees, rather taller than the ones we had been passing. When we came up close I noticed that one tree had been blown over, presumably in a gale. There were broken branches scattered all around – mostly fairly seasoned – and most much better than the ones I had just lugged along the river bank.
Not that anything looks cheerful on a wet December day in the Highlands, but this bothy looked a lot more homely than the rather dour place we had just left, on the bleak shores of Loch Chairain. It sat on a flat piece of level grass and the few trees, albeit it leafless and skeletal, added a little something to the scene.
Jake dropped his mild sulk and became excited again. Somehow, he still seemed to have energy and launched into an absurd game centred on a rock and a tuft of rushes – which involved rolling, kicking and growling...
An hour later we were sat before a roaring fire. This bothy, like the last one, consisted of two ground floor rooms and an upstairs attic room intended to be the sleeping area. Once again, Mr Woof refused to climb the stairs and so we had occupied the most comfortable of the two downstairs rooms, both of which had wooden floors – in contrast to the grim stone of the previous night. Another contrast was a fully stocked wood store, under the stair case – complete with axe. Getting going the miserable little fire of the previous night took a big hit on the kindling I was carrying – so it made a pleasant surprise to find a load of dry stuff at Staoineag. I chopped up the drift wood I had collected and set it to dry – and then created a fine blaze which this time, Mr Woof approved of. He had rejected the bed I had laid out for him the previous night – but now, he obligingly settled himself on the towel – and lay there contentedly nosing his little pink piggy.
Over a Cuppasoup and Mountain House freeze dried meal, I checked out the bothy visitor’s book, by torch light. It seemed that the last visitors had been here only 24 hours before us – and that over the winter people had come roughly every few days. Over the summer, people were in residence pretty much every day – and in fine weather, it could get crowded. This was in contrast to the Loch Chairain Bothy, where winter visitors were rare – and summer visitors perhaps at most 1-2 times per week.
I continued leafing back through the very battered book, hoping to find my last entry from seven years earlier... but sadly it only went back a couple of years. There was no sign of any of the earlier volumes. Pity...
I remembered my previous visits...
My very first visit had been (OMG) forty one years earlier in the summer of 1972. I had been eleven years old – and on my first camping expedition on an outward bound course in the wilds of Scotland – based at Tulloch, the next tiny little railway stop beyond Corrour – and about 15km from Staoineag.
My next visit was just over thirteen years later, in March 1985, when I was a 24 year old junior doctor. This was the same infamous trip as briefly described above – which had involved camping in the top of Leum Uilleim – and getting buried, rained down – and then blown apart – all in one miserable and interminable night... To continue that storey: the twilight of soon after dawn found me lying out in the open, in a sodden sleeping bag, with what little remained of my tent as a few tattered ribbons, flapping violently beside me in shrieking hurricane force winds. The rest of the tent had vanished along with map and various other bits of equipment. I piled what I could into my rucksack, crammed on my boots and considered my options. What I later understood to be 80mph winds were howling out of the northeast. Returning to Corrour would involve battling over rocky terrain straight into them. But somewhat fortuitously, before I had lost my map, I had already planned an escape route. I had even set a bearing on my compass which would take me in the opposite direction, off the summit down and then in a roughly south-westerly direction across the shoulder of Beinn a Bhric. Beyond was the Loch Chairain Valley, which had to be sheltered from the 80mph blast. I can remember having to crawl to get across and then off the summit, where I quickly dropped out of the reach of the winds, which continued to shriek over head. I can remember crossing a col followed by the shoulder of Beinn a Bhric – before descending in cloud on the other side. After struggling down steep slopes of clinging heather for some time, I can remember seeing the very lonely looking Loch Chairain valley materialise below. But I don’t recall seeing the Loch, which would have been off to my left – and I had no idea that there was a bothy there. I only remembered the Staoineag Bothy, somewhat further away – and I had memorised enough of a route to be able to find it, although in a different valley system. Despite my sodden sleeping bag I thought I’d better spend a night there before tackling the long walk back round the Loch side to return to Corrour. Avoiding the tops and crossing a boggy pass, it must have taken me a few hours to find the bothy - which I expected would be empty.
Inside, to my surprise, I found a roaring fire going. It seemed that the shelter had a permanent inhabitant at that time. I think his name was John. He was an eccentric thirty something, living there with just his beard and catapult for company. Fortunately he didn’t mind me disturbing his solitude – and obligingly made room for me beside his fire. He also made room for my sodden sleeping bag, which was soon steaming in the rosy glow.
I ended up spending two nights at Staoineag with John and his beard. He told me that he’d had a bang on the head, which left him with some eccentricities – which ultimately led to him escaping from society, in various hidey holes, including a log cabin, hundreds of miles from anywhere in Alaska – and now Staoineag. Being a mere twelve miles of swamp from the nearest civilisation of Kinlochleven it was altogether more convenient for him living in the bothy as opposed to the Alaskan cabin. He told me he walked the twelve miles and back once every two weeks – to collect his Social Security money from the Post Office, which he then spent on vegetables at the supermarket. This constituted the majority of his diet. But he wasn’t vegetarian. He hunted birds and rabbits armed with snares and his trusty catapult... which he proudly demonstrated to me – hitting a tin can ten times out of ten, at a distance of about 20m. By the time I left the bothy my sleeping bag was dry – and I had learned a great deal from John.
Absurdly I found myself half expecting to find John at my next visit to Staoineag, over twenty years later, in 2007, when I took two of my children – and a very young Jake. We walked there round the lochside from Corrour, without going over the mountains. Thirteen year old Andrew and ten year old Fiona were a bit disappointed that the hairy man wasn’t in residence anymore – after all that I had told them about him. In fact the place was deserted. I had to spend a good couple of hours scouring the river banks for firewood – and then the fire I eventually got going wasn’t a patch on John’s welcoming blaze.
Back to 2013...
I slept much better than I had at Loch Chairain. I think that Mr Woof did too. Nevertheless there was still an eager explosion of tail wagging when I reached over to stroke his back, as the first grey light of day filtered through the only cracked and dirty window, into our bedroom. As I slid out of my sleeping bag and climbed to my feet, I was pleased to note that both he and my boots had more or less dried out overnight. But the morning wee excursion confirmed that neither would stay dry for long. Rain was weeping steadily from the sombre grey sky outside – and we now had approaching a 10km walk, partly uphill, to get back to where we had started, at Corrour Station, back up on Rannoch Moor.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get wet again. It would have been nice to put the world back on the map over not just one, but maybe a couple of slow coffees. And Mr Woof, for all his initial enthusiasm, didn’t display quite the same energy as the previous day, when he came back inside after his wee and a desultory sniff.
But we had a train to catch.
There was a very early one, which we wouldn’t catch – without helicopter assistance. The next one was at about 12.30. The one after that was not until the evening – after dark. So - with a five hour drive to do at the end, it had to be the 12.30. Already this was less than four hours in the future – and I still had to have breakfast – and then I needed to pack up, clear up – and leave the wood store at least as well stocked as I had found it. Mr Woof had only to have his breakfast, whatever he could get of mine – and then was responsible for no more than his tail, in terms of packing and portage.
We were ready to leave at 9.30am. Three hours seemed generous for a mere 10km. However, at least half was potentially on ‘two mile an hour’ terrain or worse. The latter third was uphill – and finally, if we were late; a six hour wait, sat at Corrour Station, did not bear thinking about. On a positive note, my rucksack was now almost empty. We had burned all the logs I had brought and had consumed nearly all the food.
The going was easy for the first hundred metres, initially across a flat grassy meadow. I paused and took a rather grim looking photo looking back. Thinking back to the words of the Apollo 13 Astronauts, as they took their leave of their ‘lifeboat’ the Lunar Module ‘Aquarius’ I said out loud:
“Farewell Staoineag Bothy – and we thank you!” and then to my companion “Right Mr Woof – let’s do it!”
We strode out of the meadow and into the strip of wet woodland alongside the river. There was a path, but it was rocky, boggy and slippery – and part overgrown. It was ‘two mile an hour’ stuff again...
We reached the shores of mighty Loch Treig after about an hour’s walk. Twelve kilometres away lost in the dark mists at the far and northern end of the lake was Tulloch, where I had attended my first outward bound course forty one years earlier. We were now back in the world of semi-civilisation. The now boggy path emerged at a 4WD shingle track which crossed the southern end of the lake. To our left this track went over a bridge a short distance to Creaguaineach Lodge. Some excavations and a small digger suggested someone was doing some work here – but nobody was in sight – and the lodge looked deserted. Jake and I turned right away from the Lodge.
After a couple of kilometres we reached the southeast corner of the long narrow lake – and the 4WD track turned a right angle away from the shore, to start the weary ascent up towards Corrour. We were on an intersecting course with the railway line now and in due course we were paralleling it.
About 2km from Loch Treig, the 4WD track divided into a left and a right fork. Straight ahead across a footbridge over a shallow river and continuing to follow the railway line was the most direct route back to Corrour. This was only a distance of about 2.5km – but, coming down this way in 2007, I remembered this route as crossing some very boggy ground.
I decided to follow the left and much less direct fork – which remained as a shingle track. This went (with the river) under the railway and deviated away to the northeast towards another large lake, Loch Ossian, before turning back towards Corrour. Following this route would add about another 2km to our 10km walk. But it was easy and mud free – and we had the time.
The river in front of us was perhaps a last opportunity to get Jake washed before taking him on the train. His entire bottom half was now filthy. At my request he obligingly entered the river, lay down and got his matted undercarriage and muddy paws cleaned off in the fast flowing water – before standing and having a good shake.
“C’mon Mr Woof – let’s go!” I said to my now clean but bedraggled companion. He trotted along with me, underneath the railway line and into open moorland on the other side. The track now started to ease away from the railway. With over 4km still to go, I stepped up the pace, but before we had gone very far we were both startled by an abrupt clattering. A train appeared, moving with surprising speed towards and then past us, as it continued on its noisy way towards the east bank of Loch Treig – and ultimately Fort William.
The passing of the train had an effect on Jake. I could tell from his cocked ears and motionless tail, that he was studying it intently. As well as the noise and sight he would also have picked up the scent – and undoubtedly he made the connection with the way we had come to be here. All of a sudden his demeanour changed. He now lost all interest (which had been waning) in the scent trails and streams. He stayed on the track but now seemed anxious – and I had the feeling he was looking for something. He kept stopping and looking over to the right, as if what he was looking for was off in that direction.
The track was still rising and on a convex bit of moorland, Corrour Station was now in view about 2km away directly across the swamps. I suddenly realised that this was what Jake was looking at. And it was obvious that the track we were on was taking us further away from it. I recognised something else.
Jake wanted to go home now.
He started trying to leave the track now, to launch across the swamps – and I had to keep on calling him back. I understood him completely – but it was no use telling him that the direct route across the bogs was slower – and besides, now involved crossing a fenced in railway line. Nonetheless, I kept trying to explain or at least keeping up a flow of reassuring noises.
The track angled even further away from Corrour and towards Loch Ossian, now mistily visible in the distance through the light rain. At some point we could see a building, which I knew to be the most remote Youth Hostel in the UK. Jakes anxiety eased slightly – but I could see he was still confused at the direction we were following.
I kept up a fast pace now. Actually, much as I had enjoyed this little adventure with Jake, I was also ready to go home. I was ready to get out of the rain and to feel dry socks on my feet – and a dry shirt on my back: gortex is great – but after a while in persistent rain everything still gets clammy and damp underneath.
About 200m from the Youth Hostel, there was another fork in the track. Decisively we turned right – and directly at Corrour now. A modest elevation of moorland meant we couldn’t quite see it at first. But it was soon in sight dead ahead – and Jake now relaxed, tail flying at full mast again. He trotted along well in front, secure in the knowledge that he was after all, going to go home now.
Quarter of an hour’s fast walk and we reached the tiny station. Our journey had run full circle – and we were back to where it had all began two days before. Walking across the rain slicked platform we found a tiny waiting room, open to the elements, but at least with a roof, to keep the rain off. Nonetheless, Jake preferred to wait outside. I had the impression he knew a train was coming – and he was determined we were not going to miss it.
Half an hour later he bounded confidently into the carriage. There was none of the hesitation of jumping across and over the gap between train and platform, of the outward journey. With a sense of unreality I moved from the dim twilight of the last two days into the startling neon brightness of the carriage interior. And having not seen so much as a soul right up to that point, we were abruptly plunged back into the world of people.
I found an unoccupied seat and gratefully, sat down. Jake lay down on the carpet of the aisle beside me – and promptly went off to sleep. The ticket inspector had to step carefully over him, as he made his way down the carriage. Jakes freshly washed fur started to go fluffy in the drying air of the carriage.
About seven hours later we were back home.
As I write, this adventure is nearly 8 months in the past. Sad to say this was the last opportunity to share this kind of experience with Jake. The vet thinks that Mr Woof has climbed his last mountains...
I’d hoped he’d have been able to join me, my three grown up children and eleven month old granddaughter on another precious trip to the mountains a month ago (See: “Lakes 2014: Four and a bit to Helvellyn”). He’d have loved to have come – would have enjoyed frolicking in the lake beside our camp – and climbed with us to the top of Helvellyn (as he had done with me in June 2014, months before the Scottish trip).
But at the age of 10 ¾ our lovely dog has suddenly aged. He has become increasingly stiff over recent months, especially in the mornings. But about 6 weeks ago he became acutely unwell – various symptoms, but including rather ominous breathlessness. My wife and I thought we were losing him. A chest xray showed a grossly enlarged heart and the vet has said he has cardiomyopathy.
I’m please to say medication has helped. Mr Woof is happy again – and his sense of humour is back. But he has probably climbed his last mountain. We’ll make the most of him, for as long as we blessed with his company - but this may not be for as long as we had hoped.