[Guest blog by Iain, who has just returned from a spot of Corbetteering in Knoydart. Knoydart is billed as ‘the last great wilderness’ and offers a logistical challenge for the mountaineer – certainly for accessing Munros, but even more so for the Corbetts. The area is notorious for high rainfall and rivers that are often uncrossable. This coupled with extremely rugged terrain makes for demanding outings, be that a day trip or an expedition. It must be said that Iain got extremely lucky with the weather last week…]
Most hills are tackled in one or two obvious ways. For example people rarely think to camp in order to climb the Glenshee hills, but also rarely think to do Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart as a day trip from home. The Glen Dessary hills perhaps provide the widest array of commonly-chosen options. These are generally approached from the end of the road at Loch Arkaig: turn off the main road at the Commando Memorial, just North of Spean Bridge and then just keep on heading west along around 20 miles of alarmingly undulating single track road (be prepared for any low-slung cars to ground at several points, and just hope that the road goes straight on as you crest each rise blindly pointing skywards). You can of course stay in Fort William and drive in for a single day, 40 miles of single track road being perfectly manageable. However, there really are rather a lot of Munros (4) and Corbetts (at least 7 – most of which cannot be combined with ease) for which this is the preferred starting point and you don’t want to have to do that drive too many times. So, many people choose to camp in the glen, to stay in the many bothies scattered around, or even to stay in a camper van in the car park and cycle in each day.
I decided to do something a little different and try out my new hooped bivvy bag. This is essentially just a giant zipped (reasonably breathable) waterproof bag, with a single curved tent pole to hold the material away from your head and make it feel a little less claustrophobic. In my case, it weighs in at a mere 500 g and slips easily down the side pocket of a rucksack. The big question everyone asked was “why?” A fair point when many tents weigh less than 1.5 kg – why would you sacrifice so much comfort for the sake of the weight of 1 litre of water? Well, I suppose lighter tents tend to have lots of mesh ventilation panels on the inner, which the wind howls through, and also pitching a tent does require a certain amount of space, whereas if you can lie down, you can bivvy. Other considerations would later become apparent.
In stunning early May weather I trudged up from Strathan at the end of Loch Arkaig, having done my best not to undermine the advantages of the bivvy bag by filling up the saved space with other items. This took me a very long time and it was well after 11 am by the time I finally got moving so, after making it up and over Sgurr Mhurlagain, and down and across the River Kingie at a distressing height of just 100 metres (which was remarkably easy to cross for once) it was already time to think about where to bed down for the night. I headed round to the col between Sgurr an Fhuarain and Gairich, via one of the many tracks that leads to nowhere (to the south side of Loch Quoich…where it then simply stops far from any road) before eventually spotting a promising-looking promontory. This was the first thing about bivvying – not being in a tent, you feel very exposed and in need of finding somewhere slightly hidden from view (you wouldn’t want to bivvy at the side of a major path!). It was a bit soggy and the rocky outcrops provided no shelter from the strong wind, but there was a dry strip just big enough to stake out the bag (now that is far quicker and easier than a tent).
After dinner I realised that a) I had messed up by forgetting a book and b) had no idea what on earth I was supposed to do now to while away the time. It wasn’t long before it became chilly and I slotted myself into my lightweight sleeping bag and got most of myself into the bivvy bag, with head propped up on my rucksack….wearing a thin down jacket and thin primaloft jacket, both with hoods up, gloves, insulated knee-length shorts (most of the warmth but pack down a lot smaller), and a pair of down booties. I had thought that the latter item was a pointless waste of space, but turned out they were an absolute godsend. I settled back to listen to an audiobook, sip a rather fine cask-strength whisky and gaze at the darkening sky. Next thing I knew it was 3 hrs later and I woke to see stunning twinkling stars above and to realise that I was really rather cosy and comfortable.
The next morning I left most of my stuff inside the bag and headed up Sgurr an Fhuarain and over to Sgurr Mor. The views westwards from the latter, of unknown lochs and rugged hills with no obvious route of access, told me where I would be heading next – Ben Aden. Sadly I had miscalculated by thinking just to have a single night out as a trial – when I got back to my bivvy it would have been so pleasant to have gotten back to lounging in the sun (having not seen a soul all day) and sipping the whisky, but I had over-cautiously arranged accommodation back in Fort William and had to pack up and head back up 1000 ft over the col to get back to the car.
Two days later saw me back at Strathan, with an optimised pack and heading for Sourlies on Loch Nevis (past a sign asking me not to feed the pigs!?) then round to Ben Aden, where I intended to bivvy in the col between it and Sgurr na Ciche (“Peak of the Breast”…no comment). On the way across a boggy stretch I lost the path and found myself on a good stalkers’ path heading uphill. I suddenly wondered why I would head back down from my current 400 metres to sea level at Sourlies only to climb back up to 800 metres, rather than just go up and over Sgurr na Ciche, with a quick detour over Garbh Chioch Mor. After loading up on another 3 litres of water (having found that most of the streams were dry on the previous jaunt) I felt very sluggish and thoroughly envious of those people zipping in for a day with tiny little rucksacks. The weather was still glorious but quite breezy and I wasn’t really able to enjoy those stunning views out to the islands of Eigg, Rum and Skye from Sgurr na Ciche – at least not as much as the photo suggests I should have.
Getting down to the col with Ben Aden was less testing than I had feared (they don’t speak of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart for nothing), but it was clear that I was now pretty wearied and it was time to find somewhere sheltered and dry to bed down. This proved surprisingly difficult as all the flat places were very boggy (would I be devoured by midges or just pestered by flies?). Here the advantage of a bivvy became clear as there really was nowhere a tent could have gone – even finding somewhere for the bivvy required a lengthy search. Dinner (with more whisky) was pleasant, but then the sun went behind Ben Aden and the temperature plummeted – a warm day had become a 2 degree C evening and it was time to get into the bag again. I had always imagined that I would be able to prop myself up on my elbows and read, but the roof of the bag just wasn’t high enough to keep the material away from my head and I again resorted to an audiobook and watching the sun set. The night was much colder and windier and there was no option of lounging with my head out of the bag – I was able to leave it unzipped for some ventilation, but otherwise had to hunker down, to get my head under the highest point inside and avoid the cold bag brushing my face.
Morning brought a sleeping bag covered in ice and one of the biggest problems with bivvying – there is nowhere to go to do “stuff”. I needed to spend time putting plasters on my savaged feet – which would be OK in a tent, but was misery in the open with a strong breeze and I lost all feeling in both my fingers and toes. Breakfast was cold, but I was soon into the sunshine heading up Ben Aden and was on top by around 9.30, it being further than it looked. The anticipated views out to the islands, now with the sun behind me, were actually slightly disappointing, as Ladhar Bheinn (“Larven”) blocks the view. Still, if having the splendid Ladhar Bheinn in your way is your biggest problem… On the way up I had concluded that I didn’t actually fancy another night where I was – there was no access to other hills from there – but more importantly, I realised I had run out of coffees, and a high camp without a hot drink is unthinkable. So I headed back, cooked all the remaining food (a block of emmental, melted over a pack of salami with some tattie scones chucked in (quite good actually, and those calories were going to be need), packed up and started on the long trudge back to the car – some 8 hrs or so. Sourlies and the western side of the route was sheltered, blazing hot and busy – conversations included trying to convince non-Scots that they should be treasuring this weather as one could come here every year for a decade and never get it this good; comparing notes on midges (out, but none biting – “but watch the ticks, we picked 40 off my legs yesterday, but I had been a bit stupid and just lay down in the long grass for a sleep”); what is the ratio of value for a good day in Scotland versus a good day anywhere else in the world – we settled on one of ours being worth three anywhere else as they are so rare). Once finally up at 400-odd metres again the east wind was nice and cooling as I rushed to get back, looking rather enviously at the various tents and bothies passed on the way….followed by a long drive back to Aberdeen.
So what did I learn about bivvying and the hooped bivvy bag. Well, it is wondrously lightweight and, especially compared to sleeping in a bad hotel bed (as I did for one of the nights in between jaunts!), I was incredibly comfortable and relaxed, though slightly more headroom would have made it much better. However, having a bit more shelter and somewhere to relax or sort oneself out, protected from the elements, is worth few extra hundred grams of taking a tent. Some people also take a tarpaulin…but this adds more weight again. On the plus side, I couldn’t have done what I did with a tent, as there simply was nowhere to pitch it and it did encourage me to take a route I would never have considered otherwise, plus bivvying gave me a lovely clear view of the stars, not available inside a tent.
Finally, the big elephants in the room – what if it had rained or been midgey? Well….it would have been thoroughly miserable and would have put me off for life. Any other questions?
So, a great piece of kit (as were the insulated shorts and the down booties!) and I’m sure I will have many more very satisfying jaunts with it, taking unusual routes, over the years…but I will pick my weather and time of year very carefully indeed.