Friday morning was scheduled to be an early start. It turned out not to be a problem though; the curtains were thin and it gets light awfully early in Scotland in May, so we were mostly awake before the alarm went off. We picked up our packed breakfast from reception and Chris got a printout of the Highland Weather Forecast for the weekend.
The breakfast proved to be quite basic, so when we reached the station we headed to a cafe via M&S Simply Food so Lee and I could pick up a more paleo selection.
Chris and Huw looked on in bemusement as we stirred butter into our coffee and munched our way through a couple of packs of cured meats and cheese, but once thus fortified we headed down to the basement platforms to pick up our train to Corrour.
The forecast that Chris had obtained was not really promising; today (Friday) was going to be pretty wet. Saturday was not looking too bad, with some clear skies. Sunday, however, looked dismal; incessant heavy rain, gale-force winds, snow on the tops, a low freezing point and low visibility. It was clear that, as we’d suspected, we wouldn’t be able to do the planned route through the Grey Corries to the Ring of Steall and would have to do valley walking instead.
The first segment of the train ride was a local service to Dalmuir. The guard had a wicked sense of humour; seeing our tickets, he was all, “Oh, have you not heard the line to Corrour is closed with snow, nothing’s going past Dalmuir just now…” which had me worrying about alternatives until he owned up.
We duly changed at Dalmuir for the service which headed all the way up to the West Highland coast. The passengers were mostly hiker-types such as ourselves and it was a pleasant enough journey. We alternated pondering new routes to Fort William with playing travel games and enjoying the Scottish scenery, which got increasingly impressive as we reached further into the highlands; the Highland cattle grazing, the lush greenness alongside the earth-tones of heather, reeds and moss and the simple ruggedness of the landscape.
For all of the beauty though, I am not without a certain amount of trepidation. This will be my first real independent camping trip; I’ve never before set out supported just by what we are carrying on our backs. The weather forecast is worse than one would expect for Scotland in May. Camping in the wet is no fun and if you are pitched in a remote field somewhere, rather than a campsite with a nearby pub, there is no escape from the misery of the cold and wet.
Conversely there is a thrill in the risk and the self-reliance; for the first time in a while, I’m outside of my comfort zone. It is something I have sought out; new experience, so the thrill and trepidation will probably be my companions often in days to come.
Further diversions on the train were the random presence of Barney (a friend of Chris’ from his university days), a friendly Scots Collie dog called Skye and bad cheese jokes… (Which cheese can hide a small horse? Marscapone! How do you pick up radioactive cheese? Caerphilly!)
Arriving at Corrour was every bit as atmospheric as I’d expected. There is a single line of rail which splits into two to go either side of a platform built out on a moor. There’s a Station Master’s cottage adjacent and a road leading down to the Youth Hostel, but that’s it. It feels very remote. There is limited fencing and you exit the station by crossing the track.
Once the train had left us behind, we got our gear sorted, paused for Lee to do some of his handstand pushups in front of the station sign, and then set off into the hills.
Well, actually we set off into the bog.
It was pretty treacherous going for the first mile or so. Chris ended up thigh-deep in a bog within ten minutes of setting off which could have been nasty, but he rescued himself without issue. It did mean he had wet feet for the rest of the day, but he was a trooper and didn’t complain. Although it had been dry when we got off the train, the rain picked up as we walked and by the time we were climbing it was pretty constant.
We were heading northwest to begin with and then skirting the southern end of Loch Treig to almost double back on ourselves along Gleann Lolairean. The plan being to skirt the Blackwater Reservoir and come by Loch Leven to pick up the West Highland Way into Fort William.
Along the way we spotted six deer on the opposite ridge. The only other sign of life though was an abandoned mountain bike by a stream. We wondered a while about the fate of its owner. In the end, since it had been secured and didn’t look like it had been there for more than a day or two, we decided it was deliberately left, probably by a mountaineer off up the hill somewhere. We moved on.
While technically we were following a recognised trail through the countryside, in practice we were hiking cross-country. The trail, such as it was, was more of a suggestion of a route; winding, patchy and often more like a stream bed. Constant care was necessary with your footing to make sure you avoided any too serious a bog, not to mention the risk of twisting your ankle on some loose or slippy scree as we climbed.
Eventually though, our first day’s rest came into sight; the bothy on the shore of the small Loch Chiarain. As we approached the bothy we were caught up by another hiker, Ben, a languages teacher from Edinburgh who was heading to the same destination.
While, I’d heard of them , I’ve never stayed in a bothy before. They are free shelters, dotted around the hills, where you can turn up and sleep for free. While always basic, they are waterproof and reasonably wind proof and typically have a fireplace and are near a watercourse. The Loch Chiarain bothy is a two-storey restored cottage with four rooms, one of them with a wide shelf in the corner for supporting your stove while you prepare food. It was actually colder inside the bothy than outside as the thick stone walls tend to damp temperature variations.
We laid out our sleeping mats and hung up the damp kit in the hope it would dry. Because the bothy was quite chilly, we took stuff outside and draped it over bushes and fence posts to get a wind-assist. Huw even experimented with using body heat and spent a while with socks stuffed under various parts of his clothing.
The weather was clearing as we arrived and it turned into quite a nice afternoon, with a bit of sunshine breaking through to show off the landscape. It was still early for dinner so Lee, Huw and I headed up the hillside behind the bothy to see what we could see.
Sitting on a rock near the top, we spent an exquisite while just enjoying the silence and isolation; quite the contrast to our regular lives. As Lee later observed, it gives you time and space to talk – something which is too often lacking in London.
Looking south over the reservoir there was a picturesque view of snow-capped mountains, with clouds passing by and the sun playing across their flanks.
Dinner was entirely dried food – it’s the easiest way to carry it – so we dined on Bachelor’s Bean Feast, Chilli and Smash. After the day’s exertions though, it was as good as prime steak for us!
After eating it was still early evening and without any TV or radio, without any mobile signal to connect us to the outside world, we were left to our own devices for entertainment. We headed downstairs to join Ben in the room he’d occupied and shared his sausages and port with our chocolate and spirits (I’d brought brandy, Lee had brought whisky.)
We played a couple of games by the fire. We had a go at Just A Minute – and while I didn’t win, I think I was the only one who completed an entire minute uninterrupted (on the subject of Spain, if you’re interested.) Lee had another game too; this time courtesy of his girlfriend, Grace. We each put the names of several famous people into a hat and divided into teams. Each team would pick a name out of the hat and, in successive rounds, had thirty seconds to either describe the named celebrity, use mime to describe them or finally convey the person in a single word for as many names as possible. It proved to be a singularly enjoyable game! I think all of us have added that to our repertoire for the future.
Eventually the light began to fail though and we headed to bed. Lee was asleep and snoring (loudly!) within five minutes. Apparently alcohol has that effect on him.
Because my sleeping bag wasn’t rated for the temperatures we were expecting, I slept in pretty much what I was wearing, plus a couple of pairs of longjohns. It turned out that even that wasn’t enough and, after an hour or so, I added balaclava, jacket and gloves. Even then I could feel the heat leaching up out of my legs. Eventually I dozed off and slept fitfully through the night.
See the photo album for this trip HERE.