Dark skies met us as we collected our gear together by the side of the road. Fleeces and jackets strewn across the gravel car park. Canvas bags of food and snacks from the supermarket emptied and ferreted away into spaces and gaps between sleeping bags and roll mats deep in our packs. Car headlights reflected off the wet road, yet stars were visible between the clouds, the rain might hold off a little longer. The path to Shenavall bothy, our bed for the night, lead up from the road into dark wet trees. Locking the car and checking again we had everything we needed we crossed the road and left the comfort and safety of the know and headed into the deepening darkness.
As the path climbed we soon warmed up and hastily added waterproofs were soon removed and strapped to packs. The best and worst thing about staying in bothies is the fire. Coming back from a big day in the hills to a warm cozy fire is the most amazing feeling. However, that fuel has to come from somewhere. Heavy logs and a bag of coal weighed heavy on our shoulders as we hefted packs back on and started out once more into the dark.
Following the rocky track wasn’t difficult, the highlands are criss-crossed with four by four tracks from grouse and deer shooting and access to the lodges and lochs hidden and scattered amongst the mountains and moors. Finding the turn off to the bothy proved a little more challenging. At a rise in the track a faint path lead off across the grass into the dark. Rain had started and drops flashed across the beam of head torches as we searched the distance to assess if this was the correct way to go. Sheltering our map in an unzipped jacket the decision was to go, to leave the comfort of the track and follow would could be a deer path into the distance. Map reading and navigating can be tricky at any time in the Scottish hills. Cloud and fog can obscure landmarks and misrepresent distances. What feels like a long time of walking may only be a few minutes when not on a path or in the fog. On a dark, wet and windy night this can be even more difficult. Especially so when your objective is a tiny stone cottage miles away around a massive mountain. Without a tent there is no alternative but the get there, a night out in the rain in a bivvy bag would be pretty unpleasant.
The soft grass and waterlogged ground splashed underfoot as the path wound round the contours of the land, huge erratic boulders looming out of the dark into torch beams. What had seemed like a reasonably easy walk out to the bothy had rapidly become a little more arduous. This was often the way. Late night drives north into the wild with grand plans for the weekend. A long hike into the dark in order to get a good start on the following day. It was always worth it in the morning, but now, in the dark and rain the doubt started to creep in. How far was it again? How far have we come? Are we definitely on the right path?
Suddenly a beam of light shone out the dark. At first it was surprising, to see another person way out here on a wet windy moor in the middle of the night. Shenavall bothy, however, is a popular spot and the dream of possibly having it to ourselves had seemed remote to start with. Now here was someone else, making their way out here, breaking our solitude and bringing us back to reality. We were not alone in the dark at the end of the world, the wild weather we were enduring is also battering and soaking other people out here too. The feeling of isolation and being alone is easy to find in the highlands. Stay away from one or two popular hills and it’s possible to not see other people for days. The sudden intrusion in this reverie of loneliness is often startling but equally welcome. A kindred spirit, someone else “mad enough to do this”. The lonely figure waited for us, alerted by our torches. Alone and heading out to the bothy but hampered by a huge sports bag of logs, he was having a break from lugging his cargo. His companions were already there, 3 more people. It was going to be a crowded night in the bothy.
Heading onwards with our new companion the path disintegrated further. Our new friend’s existence out here though proved we were at least, probably, on the right path going in the right direction. Picking our way across swamped heather and collapsed sinkholes of peat the path vanished and reappeared again and again. The contour of the hill to our right keping us in the right direction. Don’t go up or down, just traverse and we’d find the path again soon enough. Easier said than done in the dark on a bog full of rivers and holes and marsh. It’s at these points that confidence falters. Experience however tell you to carry on, you know the way, your going in the right direction, have faith, what’s the worst that can happen?
Sports bag guy was struggling. Our packs were heavy but determination and the fact that they were on our backs meant we were faster than him and walking was a lot easier. He decided to have a rest and we pushed on, leaving him alone once again in the dark. It’s not good hill etiquette to leave someone alone but his insistence that his companions were on their way back from the bothy to find him and that we should push on made the choice easier. This decision would appear again in the next few days with a different set of circumstances and a different outcome.
Another flash of a torch out the darkness woke us from the trudge across the rocky moor. The light was below us which meant we must be close to the end of the long traverse and should soon find the river to follow down to the Bothy. The second person to meet us out in the dark was indeed looking for the first. After a brief chat and assurance that their missing party member was indeed further back along the path he sprinted off telling us it wasn’t far now, almost there.
The path now re-emerged as a defined line through the heather as it started to drop towards a roaring stream swollen with rain and rushing quickly down into a narrow gorge. The path twisted and turned along the bank, rising and falling with each waterfall and hollow the river had carved out the hillside. As we descended the rain was stopping and the clouds began to part. A bright moon lighting the edeges of mast moving huge clouds. The sudden change gave the landscape scale again, the height of the surrounding mountains visible as dark bulks against the clouds. Moonlight illuminated the valley floor below and a lonely light shone from a window in the distance. Shenavall Bothy.
The light gave new energy to our weary legs. What had been planned as a quick hour or so to the bothy had turned onto almost 5 hours and it was now almost midnight. Climbing wearily down rocks the path continued down but the Bothy stayed in sight, guiding us home. The sides of the gully suddenly gave way to open space as we emerged onto smooth grass and bracken. White light from the moon illuminated the wide valley floor and the surrounding mountains. Walls of rock shone in the moonlight on all sides and the loch down the valley sparkled. Moments ago we had huddled under hoods from the rain and wind and now the cool fresh breeze revived us and carried us to the doorstep. Pushing open the door a familiar smell of sweaty clothes, boots and smoke met us. Warmth filled our lungs and fogged up glasses. A welcome seat by the fire and a welcome from strangers that you only get in these remote lodgings.
After food and a rest we went to look at the view. The now clear sky and full moon gave ample light to admire the bulk of the mountains we had come here to climb. Behind us the wall of the north side of An Teallach rose mightly into the night. An almost impenetrable steepness but the way up was back the way we had just come so this would wait until Sunday. Tomorrow's objective lay across the valley floor and was only partially visible. The Fisherfield Six, a ring of mountains in one of the most remote parts of the highlands. A big day out, 30mk over 5 major peaks. Only the first hill was visible and its height and size hid the others as well as the valley behind. We’d need an early start so reluctantly we heading back indoors and to the warmth and comfort of sleeping bags to fall into a deep exhausted sleep and dream of clear skies and calm weather tomorrow.