Winter Walking in the Arrochar Alps: Part I

For a while now I have thought of myself as a ‘morning person’. I really appreciate those hours before midday and if I can use them productively, it sets me up so much better for the rest of the day. Many people, however, do not agree, and their argument against early rising is never strongest during the winter months. Waking up and climbing out of a warm bed when it is dark and cold outside is – whilst hardly a major obstacle to a fulfilling life – a big challenge, purely from a motivational perspective. Getting up hours before dawn (6am to be precise), as you can therefore imagine, with the explicit purpose of spending a few days in the hills with little chance of fire, reasonable chance of rain or snow, and certainty of coldness and strong winds, is so much harder.

As I shouldered my pack and trudged through the blackness to the bus that would take me north to the Arrochar Alps, my motivation was extremely low. I even questioned whether I actually wanted to go through with this camping trip, but the prospect of staying at home twiddling my thumbs for five days knowing I could be in the thick of it hardened my resolve, so I climbed onto the bus.

The driver dropped me off at the bottom of my first hill, Binnein an Fhìdhleir (Fiddler’s Peak), which climbs in a steep ridge from west to east for about 3km before it summits at 811m. It was still pitch black as I left the road and got onto the hillside, and I had my headtorch on full for some time before the first shadows of night began to lift. A small bird, swift as the wind and unknown to me as a result, shot past as I climbed, and it seemed to herald the dawn. Grey light began to bleed through the dark sky, and the voices of other birds called to announce the coming of day.

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The initial climb of an Fhìdhleir is extremely steep, but after about a kilometre it flattens out. Coming onto the first of these plateaux, I got into my stride, and felt as if I was beginning to attune to my environment. I breathed in the fresh air, admired the opening views below me, and listened to the growing silence. Just then, I saw in the distance a lone deer, leaping gracefully across the northern side of the hill, like a spirit. I watched it, but kept walking. As I climbed further, it seemed to be leading me up, stopping and turning to look directly at me. Every time it did this I stopped and looked back, and we held each other’s gaze for quite some time. Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a fox, however, as I turned to look down the way I’d come, I saw no other animals for many hours.

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After summiting an Fhìdhleir, I descended a little, and made my way north east, walking parallel to the hill’s ridge, which also begins curving this way. I then dropped down from the hill to the meeting point between Glen Kinglas and Glen Uaine, where there is a bothy. For anyone that doesn’t know what a bothy is, it is a small hut or cabin that is used by walkers and campers and maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). There are just shy of a hundred bothies in Scotland, and the one I was headed for (known as Abyssinia bothy) is the newest addition, opening towards the end of 2017.

The landscape on my way to Abyssinia bothy was breath-taking. The arms of the surrounding hills criss-crossed each other in the distance, with broiling clouds emanating from the fissures, whilst closer to, the flatter northern side of Binnein an Fhìdhleir stretched away and down, riven with burns and pockmarked with frozen ponds or moss-clad boulders. Smaller wisps of cloud were being dragged along this barren expanse by the wind, and the ground crunched hard under my boots.

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On a smaller scale, too, I found fascination and beauty. The urge to jab your walking stick into frozen water is irresistible, and I spent a good amount of time doing so, inspecting the patterns my handiwork made. At one stage I removed a triangle of ice, about two inches thick, and turned it over. Looking at it from the top, it appeared almost completely clear, but when you rotated it to get a cross-section view, thin, vertical and impossible delicate bubbles appeared, scoring the inside of the ice block. Prodding the remaining pond-surface pushed larger bubbles to the edge, where they hissed through the grass. Skimming the ice triangle on the pond smashed it and made an incredible noise as the different pieces skittered away. In spite of all these wonderful diversions, I eventually made it to the edge of the hill, below which the glen and my bothy lay.

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I had been a bit concerned about fuel for a fire (it says on the MBA website there is no suitable wood in the area despite it being surrounded by trees – they are all Sitka spruce and broadleaf pine, and permanently soaked through), so I was very happy to find bags of coal, kindling, firelighters and logs galore. It was still light, however, and I wanted to make myself comfortable before getting the stove going, so I left all this for now.

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But before long, I had company! Two other walkers turned up, called Rachel and Cameron, who had been up Beinn Chorranach and Beinn Ime that day, having arrived at and stayed in the bothy the previous night. They were both super friendly and we quickly hit it off. Cameron made us some tea, and we sat around the table playing shithead until it was time to light the fire. As it turned out, they had brought a good portion of the coal and kindling, and since they didn’t want to lug it all back to the car in the morning, we decided not to hold back. It was also very cold, so a big blaze was necessary as well as desirable and convenient, and soon we had the stove full of big lumps of coal and wood. It was nice to be in the company of people who appreciate fire as much as me, and we talked about its importance to humans whilst drying socks, cooking dinner and drinking their beers and my whisky.

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I had a really lovely evening with them, full of laughter, jokes (mainly centred around the crazy bothy entries from previous tenants, involving a fight in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve and a phantom bothy officer) and interesting conversation. As my first bothy experience they said I was lucky not to have encountered any maniacs, which apparently is quite common. There are some nasty stories about people forcing newcomers to sleep outside or not sharing the area around the fire. Anyway, we had a great time, and fell asleep side by side with the stove at our feet. The light danced on the ceiling, and the infinitely comforting sound of a dying fire calmed me to sleep in no time.

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