The Rough Bounds of Knoydart / Stage 1 - Glenfinnan to A' Chuill bothy [Saturday 7 May]
last updated August 25, 2005
Thursday evening, the weather forecasts had looked pretty grim for the first weekend, and the grandmother of the B&B had told us that the past weeks had been pretty cold for this time of year (check map). But when we peeped out the window, there was quite a lot of blue in the sky. However, to our surprise - this was May - the tops were covered in snow, which could only mean one thing: this was not going to be Bahamas weather. Not that that's necessary; in fact, the ideal temperature for backpacking is between 15 and 20 centigrade, with a bit of sun, a bit of cloud, and no rain. We call this 'mixed'. We would find out that local forecast semiotics diverge from ours and that 'mixed' means something entirely different in Scotland.
Standing on the platform of Glenfinnan station, with the sun warming our faces, the suspense brought about by anticipation was hardly bearable. There had been hardly a soul on the lovely trainride, a sturdy wind had been drawing ripples on Loch Eil, and when finally Loch Shiel and The Bridge came into view, I almost started crying - so happy I was to be back. Of course I felt a slight pull towards Mallaig and Skye, but the need for the solitude of the outdoors was even greater.
It took us a while to get going, but by 9:30 we were off. A light drizzle had settled in, so we followed the road to get to the start of the tarmac road into Glen Finnan as quickly as possible. Once there the sun was shining through and it read, Strathan: 9 miles - about 14.5km. Okidoki. As we started on the narrow road with the bridge ahead, the mountains all around, the complete tranquility and some deer grazing left and right, it struck us once again: this is why we do it. This is why we voluntarily put respectively near 20 and near 15kg on our backs to haul it across the utmost desolation. Before too long, the pass (471m) leading out of Glen Finnan appeared in the distance.
Despite the fact that tarmac is quite a pain to walk on, it makes progress swift, and about a solid hour including a break later, the track left the road to the right and we passed the Corryhully bothy. To the left, a valley was coaxing us into Morar to Loch Beoraid that lies beyond, but we had a route to stick to. A few minutes later the first rain came down, and we met with Allt a' Choire Chàrnaig in spate - a foreboding. It let up soon though, and after we crossed the footbridge further up the valley, as we started the gentle climb to the pass (on a track and not a path as marked on the OS LR map), we looked back on Glen Finnan in lovely weather. It was about noon, and soon we'd be having a lovely picnic on the pass...
Not so, however. As we reached the pass around noon, anticipating the lovely views, the weather changed in a fraction of a nanosecond from chilly but lovely april springtime to downright end-of-february deluge, as the drizzle developed into icy rain, changing to hail and snow when it felt like it. I looked up the steep flaks to Sgurr Thuilm left and Streap to the right, but on top it was a complete white-out. I buried my plans to try for Thuilm (a munro), we buried the idea of a picnic (ate a power bar instead), we forgot to put on our waterproof trousers, and in the faint hope that it couldn't stay that bad for too long, we started the descent.
I had read that the path descending into Gleann Cuìrnean towards Glen Pean was next to nonexistent, but somehow the exquisite track up Glen Finnan had risen the hopes... wrong! No real path exists, and the initial descent is very steep, and slippery in rainy weather. Add to this the biting cold (my girlfriend's fingers felt frozen in the gloves - it must've been under 5°), and you slip faster than you think. I wasn't really used to the pack yet, and this sudden descent in hellish conditions made for frequent almost-broke-my-neck moments. Fortunately, once we reached the river, the gradient eased, though my right knee had hit a rock, so I began shifting my weight to the left one - bad idea.
About 1 1/2 hour after the pass, with no path in sight, a river (Allt Cuìrnean) that was obviously in spate, and weather that was only going to give rise to more spaterity, we had to decide on which side to walk. And decide it nOw - since numerous burns would be feeding this one further down. Though the OS LR map showed the imaginary path to be on the left bank, we had to end up on the right bank to cross the larger River Pean later on; the map did not show a bridge at the far end of this river however. So we looked for a suitable spot an forded the river, which had already quite a pull. Blessed are walking poles.
Apart from a tiny clear spell and the occasional dry minute, the entire descent of the valley was executed in torrid rain, icy wind, across flooded land, burns in spate, uneven bog, spongy mosses... you name it. Without a tree or a rock for shelter - fortunately the wind was in our backs. Miraculously my feet stayed dry (that's 300 € of boots worth it's entirety), but after 3 solid hours of walking in this downpoor, everything else was soaked or at least damp (even the packs under their protection - shows you why you should shove everything in plastic bags). Along the way, we spotted remains of ancient woodland - old pieces of root buried deep in the peat layers , gone all sloppy and looking like plastic wood. The Lumberjack did his job alright.
The downside of pathless walking is that you have to make your own route, which can get a pain in the arse when the whole place looks like a swimming pool. You try a bit up from the river - no; a bit on the edge of a plateau - no; back downhill to the river then - no; ok, why not ford the river again? - not possible; etc. etc... When it comes down to it you probably do 1 1/2 times the distance marked on the map - and the heavy pack does not make things easier. We did spot a path of sorts on the other bank further down, and enormous was our frustration when there turned out to be a brand new footbridge crossing the thing just before the steep gorge!!! Anyhow, at 15:30 we entered lovely Glen Pean, crossed the bridge and took a break as the weather cleared and - lo and behold! - SUN came peeping through. Would you believe it. I'd started to believe the thing had been sucked through a black hole or something.
Basically the route to Strathan was straightforward, but utterly pathless so it said. We were knackered, and the map showed a track running trough the woods, just a good 100 meters from where we stood! This would take us straight to Strathan, and, if the weather worsened, lead on to A' Chuil bothy. Via this path, getting to A 'Chuil would only mean a surplus of 3.5-4km to the original distance to Strathan. Ignoring the warnings of Brook and Hinchliffe, we crossed the fence, and soon found ourselves surrounded by a dense conifer plantation. Unfortunately, the terrain was rather flat, meaning that the wood consisted of patches of uncrossable plantation intermixed with gullies full of water drenched sphagum. Then you also realise the advantages of a treeless landscape... inside this woodland, orientation was next to impossible, while trying to avoid sucking mud or deep pools. We abandoned, not being too sure of anything anymore and even doubting the existence of the forest track. About 20' later we were back at the fence and started for Strathan.
Now, this tiny stretch must be 1 1/2km, and quite straightforward in good conditions, but, while the sun shone now, a whole afternoon of rain made it a Vietnam-like experience, especially the final stretch, where it became almost impossible to determine whether we were in the river, in the loch, or on land. The mosses of the final 'field' to be crossed sucked us down knee deep, ensuring that our boots and feet were thoroughly wet. I couldn't feel my knees anymore, but the way lay ahead, and finally, after half an hour of ploughing, we sat down at Strathan - 16:45. Apart from the rare 10'-break, we'd been walking solidly for over 7 hours.
We took a short break, pondering over whether we should camp here and give our knees a rest (and it was lovely there), or head on to the bothy. In the end the possibility of drying our stuff proved to be an untoppable argument, so off we went. From Strathan there's no difficulty finding the forest track and it was luxury, though my knees were done for anyhow. The weather was more or less ok, the trees do not reach too high, so you do get a view of Glen Dessary. And even the occasional rainbow...
At about 18h, so after 8 1/2 hours of nearly non-stop walking and 20 instead of 14.5km, we finally descended from the road to A' Chuill bothy, where we met a group coming up, who turned out to be the work party.
After having mailed Methalda from the MBA, I found out that a work party would be staying at A' Chuill exactly that night, to do some painting and to repair one of the two fireplaces (the one in the larger right room). At first these two souls in need for solitude didn't like the idea, but now we were in need for some company. When we got in, we met with Richard from Liverpool (now living in Edinburgh), who told us that there were already 10 in the bothy now (ourselves included). In the end, the right room and its "bedroom" would hold no less than 12 that night, while I guess 6 more were in the left room, and 2 camped outside. Apparently, the horrendous weather had driven everyone off the mountains into the glen, and towards a warm shelter. Who can blame them? Soup never tasted better.
Richard, as well as a number of others who came in that night, like Mike and Sue, were doing The Great Outdoors Challenge, an exhilarating concept organised by TGO magazine. Basically the idea is to traverse Scotland west to east, but you can choose any route. You just have to start at one of 12 places, and head east. You have to submit your route to the organisation, and have to include some of their check points on your route. In other words, you're completely free, but when something goes wrong, they know immediately where to search for you. These people also prove that you can always go more extreme. We complain if we have to make a bit of a descent in rain without a path, but Richard had started out 2 days ago at Mallaig, cross country, had camped somewhere in the hills, and had been traversing the range that separates Loch Morar from Loch Nevis when the blizzard hit him and he was forced to come down. Mike and Sue had taken the Mallaig ferry to Inverie, walked to Sourlies, and the next day had simply walked up the flanks of thye munro Sgurr Na Ciche, where they met with the blizzard and had to plough through slippery snow to get to lower ground quickly. With heavy packs, mind you. I just read here that Richard finished 19 May at St Cyrus (#155). Can't find Mike and Sue, but then again I might misremember their names, or it might be that they did it independently...
The work party was a lovely bunch, consisting of Bob, who introduced us to the wide range of applications of the iterior bag of a wine crate (we baptised this new water bag 'The Bob' afterwards). I forgot the names of the other 4, but one claimed to be the guy who could attack people with tea bags, the woman was his sister I thought... Anyway, I was grateful for the wine they had and the extremely pleasant company they turned out to be. A bunch of outdoor enthousiasts for whom climbing munros was everyday business. Funnily, not one of them was an actual Scot - all English...
Unfortunately, one can't just roll out your mat in a full room, so instead of going to bed at 8, like we wanted, we only hit the sack way past 10, or was it 11. Frankly, I was so utterly exhausted, and my knees hurt so much that I was beginning to fear for the days to come. The fire made for a nice temperature though, and it didn't take too long for sleep to find me. The first day had been horrendous at times, but it also had put us right in the middle of the outdoors.