Battling to Bearnais (reader feature)

Dog in snow

A regular winter wanderer, David Bryan recounts an epic walk in to Bearnais bothy with his faithful hound Hondjie the Christmas before last.

The crunching progress of tyres on the crusty snow of Strathcarron station car park was almost deafening. In pure decibel levels it might not have threatened the integrity of the ear drum, but in relative terms, compared to the Boxing Day quiet, it was overwhelming. I tiptoed over the icy surface, almost apologetic for disturbing the sleepy silence of the West Highland village. Dog freed from her confinement in the boot of my estate car, and pack heaved onto my shoulders, I gingerly headed over the level crossing and towards Achintee and the open hillside, heading for Bearnais bothy.

Two days later I returned utterly exhausted, not having seen any sign of human life, and having no more than scratched the surface of this part of the Wester Ross wilderness. But by my return I felt renewed, refreshed and at one with my place in the world. My brief solo sojourn to hills has become an annual antidote to the worst excesses of rampant capitalism. Overconsumption replaced by minimalism, but replete with the freedom to wander among remote places, with no schedule to meet other than the rhythms of nature.

Setting off

My winter wander has in recent years been a frosty but almost entirely snow-less delight. Frozen stalkers paths make for quick progress. In the absence of gales, the cold air of the winter solstice is a fine tonic for exertion. But winter 2009 was different. Snow began to fall a week before Christmas, and accumulated in depths not seen for a couple of decades. As I left the steadings and croft houses of Achintee behind, the magnitude of the challenge of travelling through mountains in these conditions was only just becoming apparent.

Waymarker stone in the snow

Waymarker stone in the snow

First, my usual mistake: too late a start. Three hours of daylight would be more than enough, I thought; after all, on my last visit a decade and a half ago I had walked the 6 miles out from Bearnais bothy in less than two hours, dawdling to watch an eagle shadow the crags rather than spend too much time in the station waiting room.

Next, the second usual mistake: too much gear. Winter boots, ice axe and crampons are difficult to avoid. Fuel for the bothy stove is a sign of my middling years; the indomitable flush of youthful hardiness has begun to give way to a desire for a modicum of comfort, even in winter bothies. With Bearnais reputed to be the coldest bothy in Scotland and temperatures threatening negative in fahrenheit terms, it seemed a fair compromise. The rest – food, gas and the most basic cooking gear – took my pack to the 40 pound mark. Routine for a squaddy maybe, but a huge ask in deep snow in the Highlands.

And the snow was very deep. For the first couple of miles my trail had been broken by a myriad of hoof prints. Beyond all rationality, I hoped their originators had been heading for the same bealach as me, perhaps seeking a shoulder of a ridge where the snow had blown clear. It transpired the local red deer population read the conditions much better than I had, for the blanket of snow had fallen evenly; a rare occurrence in the Highlands where snowfall and tempest are rarely parted. The deer were in fact destined for the first heathery platform on the side of the glen. Their night-time abode sat above a linn which would act as a cold-well for the night air leaving their sleeping ground a vital few degrees warmer.

As I wandered across the trampled snow and flattened heather, I glanced ahead at the snow-blanketed hills and realised there was no easy highway to Bearnais. In the next two hours I covered less than two miles. Every step my legs disappeared into the blue-tinged snow beneath me. Always at least knee deep, sometimes thigh deep and occasionally waist deep, progress became sporadic and increasingly haphazard. Every few minutes some irregularity of buried topography would send me toppling into the snow, catalysed by my top-heavy unsteadiness.

The milky sunshine gave way to a long, eerie twilight which saw me still short of the bealach and almost three miles away from the bothy itself. With the last of the daylight I considered my options. One was to dig a snow hole, but the absence of any drifts made this impossible. An open bivouac would be an instant release from my anaerobic effort, but would lead to a desperately cold night in the open. The only alternative was to press ahead. Graciously, a full moon led me through the bealach at 1,500 feet. Navigation in the moonlight was facilitated by the distant Bealach Bhearnais; a quick consultation with the map indicated this defile was in direct line of sight with the bothy. A falling traverse headed straight for the moonlit landmark would see me with a roof and four walls for the night.

Rocky ridge

Rocky ridge

As mind reasoned with body it sounded simple: press on largely downhill, through the snow. However, my legs, arms and back disagreed. Every step was a huge and unpredictable effort. The only encouragement was a solitary slap of bedrock sticking out of the snow at an unnatural angle, carefully erected in some far gone time to point travellers in the direction of Bearnais. Reassuringly, it too aligned with the Bealach Bhearnais. I had visions of Victorian stalkers trudging through winter blizzard and summer mist, using the stone as their guiding landmark. In a world in which appeared that no-one had ever trod, this emblem of navigation gave me solace.

Onward, downward, but where was Loch an Laoigh to my right? How could it not be in sight? Was I taking too high a route, which would see me miss the bothy altogether? Aim for the bealach, I told myself over and over. No point now in checking the time, it wasn’t going to get any darker. It was getting colder though – a familiar accompaniment when descending to a valley floor after dark.

Now my weariness turned to exhaustion. Every hundred yards I slumped over my ski poles, my chest heaving for breath. And it was not only me who was struggling – my collie dog, Hondjie (Afrikaans for ‘little dog’), an ever faithful follower in the hills was forced to bound behind, ‘kangarooing’ from footstep to footstep. As I slumped over my ski poles once more, Hondjie curled up in the snow at my feet. It seemed she had nothing left either, and was ready to go into a sleep from which she would not wake. “Ok, let’s go!”, I said out loud, breaking the silence of a glen in which there were no footsteps other than my own, let alone people who might come to lend a hand.

Arrival

The route ahead was now blocked by a series of deep gullies. Descending into the snow-covered streams, water running unseen beneath and steep sides blocking out the moonlight, involved a huge mental and physical effort. Surely the bothy must be here somewhere. Then I thought I saw smoke rising in the middle distance. But there was no smell of wood, coal or peat; the clinically clean air could not hide the pollution of even a single chimney. But smoke rose, right in front of me. I blinked, focused and then realised it was not smoke but mist rising up a gully on the other side of a glen.

Bearnais bothy

Bearnais bothy

We continued on. Three, four, five gullies were traversed. Every 50 yards now, I slumped, my breathing deafening. Then, rising from my ski poles a vision appeared of a dark rectangle too regular to be an outcrop of rock. One last stream was crossed and the bothy was upon me. Only three hours after dark and six miles in six hours I thought to myself in mock congratulation!

Snow lay in a graceful curl halfway up the bothy door. It seemed like destroying a work of art to kick a path through and push the door open. As I entered the single room, I noticed that huge, angular chunks of ice had fixed to the soles of my boots – the result of crossing the streams in such extreme conditions.

That and the following night were the two coldest of the winter. Thirty degrees of frost in the villages, as the originators of Bearnais would have put it, and presumably colder still in my isolated domain at 1,000 feet, well away from the warming waters of the North Atlantic. I burnt my fuel logs in the stove, glorious heat pouring out for a couple of hours. Fleeces dried out, and strength restored by pasta and lashings of tea. That the water brought in from the stream iced over within minutes, didn’t bother me. A four-season sleeping bag with a thin summer bag over the top (another acknowledgement of my progressing years) is snug enough for even the most severe of Highland nights.

The compensation for a cold night on a hard wooden bothy ‘bed’ is to awaken in the middle of the hills, sun just contemplating an appearance above the south-eastern horizon. Utter stillness and tranquillity in the soft morning light, with no car to start or roads to navigate. Mercifully with just a day pack, I wandered up the snowy slope behind the bothy and made steady progress towards Sgurr na Fearain. Once high enough to feel the feeble sunshine on my back, I savoured a scene of pristine isolation. Everywhere was blanketed white, except Loch an Laoigh which had just a thin sheen of ice, such is the depth of its waters. A couple of stags wandered across the valley floor, looking clueless as to where they might find any vegetation free of snow. These beasts suffered greatly for what turned out to be a long and dreadful winter, with heavy snowfalls continuing into April.

With grateful ease I continued up onto the ridge, the Torridon giants rising abruptly to my left and the big ridges of Glen Affric forming the southern horizon. My own ridge narrowed, leading to a simple rocky step. No difficulty but pure awkwardness in wriggling up steep ground, waist deep in the softest of snow. Summit achieved, I headed back to the security of my hermit-like abode. No list of mountains bagged, no miles of glens traversed, but an honest day’s effort and a never-to-be-forgotten arctic panorama.

Heading home

Footprints

Footprints

The walk out, pack lightened by fuel and food consumed, and crucially with my own footsteps to follow, was less desperate than the epic of two days before. It was still a huge effort though, and nearing the top of the pass my rhythm of slumping over ski poles returned, though not with the same desperation as before. The walk out still took four and half hours – a dizzying rate of 1.5 miles per hour!

So what was the utility of my snow trudge? One new summit visited, though it could have been bagged from Achnashellach in a few hours on a benign summer afternoon. A physical challenge and at times self doubt, overcome. But more than this, the simplicity of being entirely committed to the task in hand, in a world where nothing else matters than completing a wilderness journey is something which appeals to something deep within my consciousness. It can’t be replicated by proxy, but must be experienced first-hand. Commitment made and immense rewards reaped. Life in its most elemental form – the ultimate antidote.

About the author:

David Bryan lives in Golspie, Sutherland with his wife and four children.

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