(This is a slightly lengthy account of me and Alison’s bothy expedition on the 2013 winter trip to Scotland. Hopefully soon to be joined by an account of the winter skills course by one of the people who did that.)
“Won’t it be a bit… cold?”
As far as I was concerned, a bothying expedition into the Cairngorms on the upcoming trip seemed like a fairly obvious idea. While the northern corries make a first class (and easily accessible) playground for winter climbers, from a walking point of view the real interest lies in the wilder and more remote parts of the massif. While a day walk could get you some of the way there, a two day trip with a night spent in a bothy would be the Real McCoy. The catch? As most people I pitched the idea to pointed out, the trip was at the beginning of March, and the Cairngorms aren’t famous for their mild climate in winter.
Fortunately, Alison shares my bloody-minded outlook on weather, and so on the Saturday morning of the CCCC Winter Meet, we found ourselves on a bus to the Cairngorm Ski Centre ready to go bothying. In our rucksacks, we had sleeping bags, sleeping mats, bivi bags (in case the bothy was full), food, a stove, wash kit, toilet roll, plenty of warm clothes, ice axes, crampons and – most importantly – a few drams of Talisker: decanted, to keep the weight down, into a 33cl mineral water bottle. After a last minute trip to a local garage, we’d also packed some firelighters and a couple of kilos of coal each. All this packing had taken a while, so we were fairly late setting off.
Never having bothied before, we weren’t quite sure what we had to look forward to, and a slight sense of trepidation was probably the reason that the avalanche forecast – almost uniformly “low”, but with a few ominous pockets of “moderate” – sent us into a panic. Was it safe? Should we go? Should we shift to a lower-lying walk? The easily accessible Ryvoan Bothy, in the northern foothills of the range suggested itself as a possibility. However, a quick chat in the Park Ranger’s office reassured us that, in their words, “you’d have to try pretty hard to get avalanched in the next couple of days”, and so we stuck to our original plan – a trip into the middle of the Cairngorms, to the tiny and remote Hutchinson Memorial Hut.
Setting off up Windy Ridge towards Cairngorm, we had further doubts – we aren’t used to walking with big packs, and progress felt like it was being hard won. Fortunately we got into our stride after the first ascent and the miles seemed to pass a bit more quickly. Our route took us over the summit of Cairngorm, steeply down the Coire Raibert to Loch Avon, and then up the other side of the Loch Avon basin and past Loch Etchachan before descending again to the hut. We’d suspected beforehand that this would make for a fairly short day, and in retrospect our whole two days route could have been done in one with an early start and light packs, but we’d basically decided that the trip was more about the excitement of a night in the wilderness than trying to get as much distance covered as possible.
We arrived at the hut at about half past four in the afternoon. We’d heard plenty of stories about people arriving at bothies to find them already full and having no choice but to bivi outside, so we were somewhat relieved to find it empty. Apart from a porch, just big enough to store wet boots and waterproofs, the bothy consisted of a single main room, about three and a half metres by two metres, with a window on one side and a wooden bench running the length of the other. The floor and walls were lined with wood, for insulation – apparently the result of some recent maintenance work. The maintenance had also involved installing a small multifuel stove. This came with a helpful notice explaining that it shouldn’t be used with regular domestic coal. We looked mournfully at the bags of regular domestic coal that we’d carried all the way there, and resigned ourselves to a cold night.
One thing that we hadn’t planned for was the lack of entertainment. Me and Alison have normally got quite a lot to say, but as we sat wrapped in fleeces and belay jackets, conversation dried up and the time began to drag. We hoped that some company might turn up – maybe even bringing firewood – and imagined we voices in the whistling of the wind. We began to ration interesting things to do – “I was thinking of going to get some water from the burn, but I might save that for 15 minutes…” – and reflected that we could probably count a pack of playing cards as essential survival gear for a future trip. I knew that I could just have got my phone out and got down to some Angry Birds, but I also knew that that would have been cheating.
Eventually, though, some company did arrive. Initially it took the form of a moustachioed Welshman called Gareth, who was subsequently joined by his friends Chris and, somewhat later, Dave and Peachy. Gareth and Chris, it turned out, were introducing their friends to skiing, and had picked a two day trip over Ben Macdui as a good choice for the first-timers. Peachy and Dave had, they, explained picked up the technique for skinning up slopes and across the plateau fairly quickly, but still had some problems descending without falling over, and consequently arrived at the hut rather later than their supposed teachers.
The new arrivals decided that the stove would probably survive a bit of coal this once, but our collective incompetence at firelighting meant that it was never seriously tested. Nevertheless, with six people in it and the heat of the assorted stoves that we cooked our dinners on, the hut began to warm up anyway. Conversation was also flowing, lubricated by various bottles of whisky that soon began to circulate. As well as the usual joshing and joking, we heard from Gareth about his cave dives in ice caves in Italy, and from David, Chris and Peachy about their summer plans for a trip to the Lingen Alps in Norway, while we trotted out our hardy perennial, The Time We Got Lost On The Black Cuillin And Ended Up In Coruisk Hut By Mistake.
The Hutchinson Hut is just big enough that six people can sleep cosily but comfortably. When we finally decided to turn in for the night, Alison and myself, as the first arrivals, staked a claim to the prime sleeping spot: on the bench, well away from the cold floor. This turned out to be so warm that as the night went on I was tempted to take off one of the two fleeces I was wearing inside my four season sleeping bag, although it did also cause a degree of nervousness that rolling over in the night could take either of us off the bench and onto the legs of the sleeping Welshmen below. Fortunately, though, we stayed in place and the only disturbance in the night were a few sonorous bouts of snoring.
In the morning, once we were out of our sleeping bags, there was relatively little reason to linger in the bothy. After a quick breakfast of raisin scones, we packed our bags – including the greater part of the coal that we’d brought in – and said some brief goodbyes before setting off. The cloud base looked fairly high, so we opted for the interesting route home – over the top of Ben Macdui and back to the Cairgorm Plateau. Unfortunately, although the walk up past Loch Etchachan was stunning, the clouds hadn’t quite cleared Ben Macdui itself and we were reduced to navigating by compass and speculating on how amazing the views would have been if we’d been able to see them.
As we descended from Cairn Lochan towards the ski centre we started to notice more than the usual amount of noise drifting across the corries. On arriving, we found a small mountain-sports festival in progress, with a DJ banging out some rave classics to entertain the crowds. Tired and smelly and not really in the mood for any big-fish little-fish, we went off to wait for the bus back to Aviemore and a much needed shower.
A hot shower, a good meal, and a couple of pints later, we concluded: yes, it was a good idea, and no it wasn’t too cold. And where are we going next year?