Beyond the lochan…


Beyond the lochan, the path climbed steadily towards the Lairig. My rucksack had seemed light enough at the start but I was soon conscious of its weight. With the wind being from behind me, however, I was not aware of just how strong it was. Or how cold.
That changed when I came through the narrow place they call the Lairig and began the descent towards the Strath. My plan had been to cross the broad flatness of the strath to Loch Farnish. At the far end of that loch is a village called Tannich where there is an splendid little inn. My friends would be there – having come to it from the opposite direction – by motor car of course. It had been our choice of several years past to bring in the New Year at that spot and I planned to shame them for their motor-borne laziness, by arriving on foot. But the strath was wide and the loch was long and when I descended from the Lairig I still had maybe twelve bleak miles to cover before reaching the sanctuary of the inn.
The wind was now coming from the side and it carried snow, at first a little but growing in density. Fine snow, like diamond dust which penetrated the folds and gaps in my clothing. I held the hood of my anorak half across my face with a numbed hand to stop it stinging my eyes. I had gone not far into this before I realised the trouble I was in.
Too late now to turn and run. To return through the Lairig would mean walking straight into the teeth of the gale and in that narrow defile the wind would be funnelled to hurricane strength. In these circumstances, the textbooks tell you to bivouac – behind boulders, dig a snowhole, construct a shelter with branches. Anything. Break the wind. Huddle down. Survive.
The conventional wisdom is that trying to continue risks a rapid decline into disorientation, hypothermia and death. But in this flat open place there was nowhere and nothing to use as shelter. There was snow, on the ground, but not deep enough to dig into – just little wreaths of the stuff among the bog-reeds. I could feel it underfoot. And bog. Yes. The ground was bog. Deep. Waterlogged. Not yet frozen. Nowhere to lie in shelter.
I tried. I had a bright orange plastic bivouac bag in my rucksack. Have you ever tried to get a big plastic bag out of a rucksack in the back dark, and driving snow, when the sack is full of other stuff and the wind is near strong enough to lift you off your feet? I gave up and struggled on. The time to have followed textbook advice was when I was at Guirig Halt. I should have stayed in that wooden hut until morning and got the next train home.
I collapsed several times. I lay right there on the path because that was the least boggy place. Hands and feet were numbed to wooden blocks. The cold was in my bones. Each time I got up. And each time I staggered on a bit further, aware that my strength was going and going. Drowsiness. Difficulty thinking. I found a stone wall and lay beside it. I remained there awhile grateful to be sheltered from the wind, before I realised it was the gable-end of a building. That’s how I stumbled upon this wonderful bothy.

So here I am, and here I’ll stay, sitting in this incongruous rocking chair, before my blazing fire writing in the logbook which I found on the window ledge. I spoke too soon, however, about the place being easy to heat. In spite of the fire, the place is cold as the grave. I think most of the heat is going up the chimney. Surprisingly there are no other entries in this logbook. You would have thought a bothy of this quality would attract quite a few visitors. But then I can’t remember ever hearing about it from any source. I don’t even know its name.
I’ll stay here until this blizzard blows itself out. Copyright: Hugh Noble, December 1999

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