I’m doubled up over my walking poles, high on a snow slope, gasping for air like a goldfish plucked from its tank. My legs have turned to jelly and various random thoughts rush through my brain. “You’re too old for this. It’s too far. You’ll never make it and end up getting rescued. God this sack is heavy. What the hell was I thinking about? I should have stayed at home.” It looked a short distance on the map but now I realise there’s a lot of contours and it feels like Cairn Toul is fighting back. Last night I slept in Corrour Bothy and now I’m attempting to backpack my way back across the mountains of Cairn Toul, Braeriach and down into the Lairig Ghru, a the great pass that splits the Cairngorm mountain range in two.
It’s taken me longer than I expected to climb the first hill and, with a quick piece of mental arithmetic, I calculate that I’ll be on the third day of my planned two day walk by the time I get back to my car at this rate. By that time there will be helicopters out looking for me and I’ll have died of embarrassment. The Easter sun has turned the snow beneath my boots to mush and I sink up to my calves with every energy sapping step. Retreat is no longer an option, it would probably take me longer to return the way I came than to keep going. I look up at the hill, shrug my rucksack back into position and plod on.
I’d spent the night in a great little MBA bothy called Corrour. Not only does it now have a floor (many years ago there was just earth to sleep on) it now has a toilet and even a stove to heat the place. What softies we’ve all become. In one of my recent blogs I bemoaned the declining numbers of folk using these remote Highland shelters and was informed by some that it was only my own anti-social nature that was causing this. I saw few folk because, I was informed, I only went to obscure and remote bothies. They told me I should visit places like Corrour, a honeypot bothy, where I would surely meet other bothy dwellers and learn the error of my ways. I decided they were right and set off for this little bothy keen to see who else I would meet.
Sadly I was the only bee at the honey pot. The place was deserted which surprised me because this was the Tuesday after Easter Monday in glorious weather. It looked like there had been a lot of folk at the bothy recently, if the tracks in the snow were anything to go by, but on the night I was there I was in splendid isolation. I’ve decided that these bothies must only be empty when I’m there. Perhaps would be visitors are warned of my presence and steer clear of these places, to be honest, if I knew I’d meet myself there I wouldn’t go either.
One discovery I’ve made recently is the ideal bothy meal. I carried in a tin of Grant’s Tinned Haggis which proved a delicious treat. Haggis has to be the best thing to eat in a bothy, after all it was designed to be eaten in places like that. Haggis is the native dish of the Highlands and evolved to provide sustaining food for men tramping miles across wild mountains. Men like me! I calculate that a can of haggis contains 900 calories, more than enough fuel to keep you going in any weather. Also, unlike many tinned foods I’ve tried, the haggis thrives in a tin and is every bit as good as its wild un-tinned cousins. I have decided that most dehydrated meals probably don’t contain enough nutrient to keep a mouse alive and most of them taste like poor imitations of what they were before all the water was sucked out of them. I will agree that carrying in a tin of haggis may mean a little extra weight but you only have to carry an empty tin home and I think the one way journey is well worth it.
When at last, gasping and sweating, I reached the summit of Cairn Toul, the view was incredible. A great sea of white mountains stretched out endlessly before me. Searching the horizon I found I couldn’t make out another human being, I was alone in all this vastness. Even better the snow conditions dramatically improved and soon I was making my way up Angel’s Peak, perhaps so named to counter balance the Devil’s Point which rises only a few miles from that spot. I switched on Haggis power and was soon back pulling back some of the time I’d lost, my boots biting into the iron hard snow.
I have a theory. The mountain gods watch over you and, when they think you have paid your dues by plodding about them in mist and rain, they decide to reward you, just once in a while, with a glorious day. Such a day was this for me. I was glad to be alive and soon the weight of my pack seemed to diminish as I enjoyed the great scale of the Cairngorms and the grandeur of the scenery around me. My words, like the images I captured with my camera, cannot do the place justice. The air was still, the snow rock hard, and the sunshine bright. For me it doesn’t get any better, and I doubt I’ll spend another day like that for many years.
At the end of the day, as my tired legs carried me up out of the Lairig Ghru, through the Chalamain Gap back to my car, I remembered why I do this. I knew for certain why I walk for hours through the snow with a heavy pack, why I endure cold nights shivering in bothies and sometimes colder days on mist covered hills. I do all of that for a day like this, a day when the mountain gods smile up on me and I can walk away, smiling with them.
Listen to the Podcast version of this post, recorded on the walk http://johndburns.podomatic.com/entry/2013-04-05T01_18_05-07_00