Friday, 30 March 2018

Staoineag Bothy Trip. Glas Bheinn, 789 metres. The 4000 foot Mountain Gallery. The First Cold War.

                                              ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
Staoineag Bothy the next morning- after the walk in the night before. 'A good dry shelter' as the first survey noted when the idea of using abandoned cottages in the wilds of Scotland as unlocked places of free overnight accommodation and refuge was initially proposed. Before then outdoor folk had used these empty buildings as relief from the elements but they were quickly becoming ruins without roofs, doors  or windows. Over the years since the mid 1960s The Mountain Bothies Association have gradually saved and repaired many abandoned estate buildings, remote outhouses, small barns, and cottages, turning them into places of relative comfort again.
Insides are usually basic but they do have a closable door and glass windows as standard and most have some form of heating in the shape of a coal fireplace or wood burning stove. As an escape from summer swarms of midges, heavy rain, high winds or freezing temperatures  they can be a lifesaver in remote places or just an overnight escape from the complexities and stress of modern life.
Bothy life is a very simple one- like backpacking. Carry enough food, water and fuel for your trip... get to where you are going... build a fire and spend the night. This can be adventurous and challenging in its own way but the general rules are simple which is probably why people are drawn back to it time and time again.
Even building a fire then watching the embers is a primitive joy in itself. You can have 120 channel TV in modern life yet still feel empty, unfulfilled and bored at times but any night spent in a remote bothy with the wind howling outside or the rain lashing against the windows feels strangely comforting, special and unique- as do the ever changing embers and myriad of strange creatures appearing in a bothy fire.. An upside down alien baby on far right...A headless white mummy circled by flame... a guy with back turned in a cap...or a laughing parrot looking forwards- take your pick- its one image... a dog-man with a big axe on left threatening to chop up a snake/worm. How many can you see?
A glowing, shifting, always different kaleidoscope that no doubt inspired early imaginative humans to embellish and add sparkle to a range of stories, ideas, omens good or bad, and future dreams. The first television, the first oracle, the original witch/muse for humankind in cave, forest or hall, and a lifesaver/best friend against the terrors outside- be it savage beasts- other tribes- or the eternal Cold War of winter's dark grasp on the land.
Another log goes on and a lizard suddenly appears a short time after.
When we arrived the smaller room in the bothy was already taken by two young folk- Mae and Elie from the Stirling area. They had already spent one night here and were walking out via Spean Bridge in the morning. After we had unpacked in the other room, see first bothy photo, we introduced ourselves and had our dinner around the one fireplace. After that we settled down and had a chat- the usual bothy conversations. It was however the coldest night in a bothy I've had in many years and even with a good fire going in a small room you could still see each person's breath like a veteran smokers vape exhale every time a sentence was produced. Four small dragons. It was a freezing windy night outside and air flow did seem to be getting in somewhere. When you went outside however it was far worse with a bone chilling gale blasting you in the face as soon as you stepped outside- as bad as any mountain summit. The river had frozen edges the next day so well below zero coupled with a constant biting wind. Mae went to bed early - probably to get a heat in her sleeping bag as I was sitting in a chair right beside the fire already cocooned in mine. Melting gear and drying off vs getting warm was a constant battle and I managed to slightly burn one of my hanging snow sodden boots later on in the other room. Being polite we didn't outstay our welcome and decamped next door to leave them in peace.
Although the other room was twice the size it was on the opposite side of the building from the howling gale outside and a small fire soon had the room feeling comfortable with no cold air breath showing at all. The same effect could be experienced outside- bitterly cold constant draft at the front door and to the east (where the wind came from-  almost calm still conditions sheltered by the west facing gable wall. An obvious answer but to feel it inside the bothy so vividly as a contrast between two different rooms meant the wind chill factor outside must have been extreme.
We went to bed ourselves three hours later, around midnight, with yours truly still wearing full thermals and more gear on inside the sleeping bag than a normal winter hill day. All that was missing was my gortex jacket, used as a pillow, as I'd taken my 3 season bag to save weight and bulk. Not a cosy night by any means but a tolerable one-  it wasn't too cold and I fell asleep quite quickly while watching the fire and the ember creatures.
If possible I always like to watch the fire until the last moment. A warrior in the flames here with a huge curved sword. (incidentally, I've been fascinated by 'Forged in Fire' Channel 63 Blaze recently and the ancient noble art of blade-making which is a real skill and not at all like I imagined that craft would be. Loads of unexpected techniques, ancient weapons on show and a real disappearing art form. Worth checking out.
Going to bed early I was up at dawn to see this sight from the bothy. First sunlight hitting the surrounding peaks. Stob Ban under rosy glow.
The temperature outside was unbelievably cold so it was straight back indoors and deep into my, cosy by comparison, sleeping sheet. Compared to John and Mae's deep pile luxury mine was a space blanket for depth of material and heat retention. Wah! Sniff sniff  :o(
Three hours later we surfaced, had breakfast, then went up our hill of choice. Glas Bheinn, a lowly Corbett at 789 metres, 2,588 feet but given the conditions- still a strong constant wind- it would be a real challenge just to summit. The guide book suggested a long 4km ridge ascent for the views but one blast of the arctic gale outside the bothy door persuaded us a 4km sheltered glen approach was the only option, giving us a half chance at success.
This is us in the sheltered glen following a thin deer track uphill.
As we climbed higher the surrounding peaks looked beautiful and serene- untouched by humanity. Apart from Mae and Elie who had left the bothy early for their marathon hike out to the road we never spotted a soul until we returned to Corrour. There was a good reason for this. Above 1000 feet -anywhere exposed- was 'sheer misery awaits' territory just like the hill-walker earlier in the last post had predicted. On the ridges and summits any exposed skin would start to die- any accidents or mishaps- you would also start to die- and it wouldn't take long. Conditions were that extreme at height. As Alex would have been attempting remote hills on his own here and I couldn't support both friends as a hill companion it's probably safer he missed out on this trip. 
Faced with stunning vistas of gleaming mountains in an area packed with several 4000 foot plus summits and inspiring cliffs my main thought was 'Oh s**t! I'm going to really suffer for this.' And I did. Already the wind chill was extreme and as we climbed higher it intensified so that we felt chilled even with full thermals, T- shirt, lumberjack shirt, heavy fleece and windproof jacket. I had a pair of thick winter thinsulate gauntlets on but even with these the relentless cold had cooled my fingers rapidly. Oven gloves and small cameras do not mix well so I had to take them off completely to get reliable pin sharp images. In under two minutes flat I could not feel my fingers pressing the button down and was starting not to care about the views either. Only my own personal survival.
But I did get several glimpses/insights into what Scotland would look like if the gulf stream (North Atlantic Drift off the UK) ever changed its course, even slightly. As soon as we moved from the sheltered glen onto the upper slopes the sheer ferocity of the wind-strength battered us so completely into submission it was like a world champion boxer in the ring with an 80 year old. Without exaggeration it was a full on arctic nightmare by the time we reached the ridge line. Very aware in our minds this was not an environment kind to life in any way.
John with Glas Bheinn in his sights. Not much spin-drift  around as any snow left by this time had either blown away completely or was frozen solid. We were just about managing to keep progressing without crampons, blown upwards by the wind, but I was not looking forward to putting them on as I had the old fashioned strap on type.
Sgor Eilde Beag, 956metres and Sgurr Eilde Mor, 1010 metres from Glas Bheinn ridge.
The cliffs of Aonach Beag, 1234 metres, 4,4048 feet high and Aonach Mor, 1220 metres, 4,002 feet.
Normally, when bagging these two impressive peaks you don't really see this drop off properly but from this Corbett you get a grandstand view.
And one of Ben Nevis, 1345 metres, 4,413feet looking like a true polar giant of the north. A thousand foot higher at this latitude and it may well retain its own year round snow pack/glacier as summer heatwaves are rare in Scotland. Climate change and ocean current shifts may well bring about that prospect at some point. Hard to predict in a fast changing world. It was a glorious sight but by now my hands had turned completely useless, my fingers were already waxy and turning unreal looking and I knew from experience my immediate priority now was to save them from frostbite. Gloves were pulled on again.
John had still to reach the summit so I told him I'd wait up on the ridge and keep him in view until he came back down safely. I'm not collecting Corbetts myself and the conditions were so extreme up here I was happy to sit this one out. Photography is my main motivation these days- I had a snap on jacket hood which might well blow off completely, and I still had to put crampons on for the descent.
While John climbed the ridge in full view to the summit I warmed my frozen hands under my armpits as the gloves were less effective than hoped, and waited for circulation to return.( John didn't take any photos at height so his gloves stayed on for the duration, once he was on the ridge.) A full 15 mins later I had my hands back enough to allow me to strap on crampons. Normally this isn't a problem in winter but conditions were so severe it was a real drawback this time. Once an action man again with jaggy feet attached successfully and ready for rescue or retreat I lay down on the ice sheet coating the ridge and waited for John's return. There was no viable shelter nearby if I wanted to see him return so a curled ball position was the best option against heat loss and skin damage- gloved hands stuffed inside my rucksack and a foot high rock at my back offering some scant protection.

 It's no exaggeration to say it was a death zone up here on that particular day. Rarely have I felt so cold on a mountain before with a relentless 40 to 50 mph wind a constant companion and a windchill factor off the scale. I'm well used to winters in Scotland and on the peaks but 30 mins exposed to it static in one place was enough for me and as soon as I spotted John returning down the slope I hightailed it back down into the sheltered glen to wait for him lower down. Only then did I get proper circulation returning into my frozen fingers again so it was not a pleasant experience. Grim misery would be a more accurate description but we had both achieved our objectives/goals/targets so we returned to the bothy two happy bunnies...
The previously frozen glen on the way up was a relative hothouse by comparison. One of the coldest hill/ ridge walks for many, many years.
To be continued.... The last day...

A good short video of a cross country/downhill ski trip to Corrour and typical Scottish ski conditions. You need to be hardy to ski here, even in the resorts, and this is completely off piste with no uplift and untamed slopes below.


Carol said...

Ah, you're getting saft Bob! I did this one in winter (from Kinlochleven side - a lovely walk) in my long bra (one which goes down to your waist and tucks in)! ;-) I'd stormed up it in a hurry and, admittedly, although snow-bound, no windchill that day - I get very hot very quickly when ascending and frequently strip off, even in winter.

Superb views - even more jealous now. I know what you mean about death in that windchill. I was even that wind-chilled on a Lakes hill this winter - it was brutal. I hoped my leg would keep going as I knew that, any period of inactivity over 10 minutes in the wind (and there was no shelter) would kill. I pondered on the thought as I walked the ridge that I hadn't let anyone know where I'd gone but then realised it wouldn't have mattered as I'd just have been a dead body if anything had gone wrong!

Excellent start to your post about bothying - well written.

Neil said...

A trip that will live in your memory, Bob. A lot of folk don't realise just how cold it can get on a Scottish hill in the winter. This one has been particularly severe, mind you and it looks as though it is not over yet. Just as well you took coal to the bothy!!!

blueskyscotland said...

Surreal image Carol but I still prefer Katy Perry in a bra wandering through an ice cream and jelly jungle- not for any sexuality mind you but for sheer visual imagination and colourful artistry as good as any Disney cartoon. I am after all a pop art, architecture, and game graphic connoisseur.
It was bitterly cold that day- as bad as any I can remember.
It should be good... it took me six hours to write it.

blueskyscotland said...

Hopefully with a good lasting image of it Neil as the day after I returned something in my leg went and I've been limping ever since- probably from carrying all that coal over lumpy ground. I hope it's on the mend but leg injuries can take a long time to heal as you can't really get around much without walking on it at some point... even just to the shops. The hazards of old age and hard exercise.

Anabel Marsh said...

Wonderful photographs but, oh my goodness, it sounds an uncomfortable experience. Massive understatement!

Rosemary said...

I hate to feel cold, and in particular my hands, so this experience sounds like my worst nightmare. I love your description of the fire creating scenes in your imagination, something that I did as a child. The photo showing the early morning rosy glow is especially pleasing to see.

Linda W. said...

You and your friend had quite the adventure! It's nice there are bothys for hikers to take shelter. Loved the ski video! :)

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Anabel,
I enjoyed most of it... hated other parts intensely (seeing my fingers turn in mere minutes into potential Madame Tussauds stand ins was a definite low point) and really enjoyed the bothy. Hard exciting trips are usually the ones you remember longest.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Rosemary,
I've always loved sunshine but cold doesn't usually bother me, indoors or out. I'd rather have cold frosty weather than mild grey and raining but this level of cold at height was really intense. I've had stronger winds on summits before and total whiteouts but not with that degree of windchill.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Linda,
I thought you'd like it.

Ian Johnston said...

Brilliant Bob, a proper winter adventure! Staoineag is as remebered, only last time I was there our fire wasn't as good as yours.... I do spend what most folk would consider an unhealthy amount of time staring into the flames of a fire....glad I'm not the only one! Great images too - well worth chilled fingers in my opinion!

Anonymous said...

I love cold conditions like that - I must be mad! Can't be that many people that have climbed that Corbett - puts us in a reasonably exclusive club

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Ian.

blueskyscotland said...

Ah, but escaping to hot countries, working indoors and switching the central heating on is cheating for the full UK winter experience. The cold is just a rare novelty then to dip in and out of as a treat. I personally like a moan myself after 10 proud years in a fridge.