Lairig Leacach bothy lies nestled amongst the slopes of Stob Ban in the Grey Corries, surrounded by the towering peaks that form the eastern Munros of Lochaber.
Following our Ben Alder bothy trip last winter, my friend Tom and I settled on Lairig Leacach as our next excursion; Tom having ambitions to run Ramsay’s Round some time in the future, and I keen to finally climb Stob Ban, the last of my Munros to summit in the area.
We drew in to the deserted farm track at Inverroy, with the inky black sky above scattered with stars and a luminescent moon. After ten minutes of walking, we stowed our headtorches away, eyes adjusting to make use of the plentiful light cast by our celestial guide.
As we climbed beyond the wall of forestry, higher and higher up the track, the snow-flecked mountains came closer, their size accentuated by the silver glower of the moon. “I feel like I am in Afghanistan or something”, said Tom, an ex-paratrooper. I could see what he meant: there was a clarity in the air that one could imagine experiencing only at high-altitudes, with mountains ethereally outlined against a black sky.
Lairig Leacach is a small bothy, and I admit to having trepidation in choosing this as our base for the weekend. I am very susceptible to two things: Cold and hunger, and usually they come together. I have not yet managed to shake the mild anxiety I get when walking to a bothy and finding it to be full and either having to walk on or camp outside. Given the temperature was below zero that night, I was crossing my fingers for a quiet bothy.
Rationally, I know that early March is hardly ‘peak bothy season’, and usually you can squeeze a roll mat in, but a cold sleep is something I dread after a few instances.
As we rounded a corner, a sloping roof came into sight. Knocking on the door, we entered and found an empty bothy – home for the weekend. Small and simple, with an open fire and a fairly sizeable bunk bed, it was the perfect spot for our weekend of adventures.
With beds ‘reserved’, we set about making dinner, watching as a pair of headtorches approached on the path. The pair – one from Fort William the other from Ullapool and both in their early twenties – were soon joined by one more. His name was also Tom, and boy could he talk the ears off a brass monkey! Regardless, all three were superb company on a cold night.
Snow swirled around the bothy, the grey clouds hanging heavy over the hills. Where was the blue sky that had been forecasted? We retreated back into our stone-walled sanctuary, in no rush to get out the door too early.
Tom and I ate breakfast as our companions dozed in their bunks, watching the flurries fly by the window. Suddenly, a ray of golden light struck the blurry glass. With coffee in hand, we went outside; the snow had abruptly ceased and a band of light was streaming into the valley.
Grabbing our extra layers and my camera, we marched through the heather to a vantage point above to see Stob Ban aglow with the early morning sun, sparkling with a fresh dusting of snow. We drank it all in as the clouds that had smothered the lower tops began to lift and the land awoke. It was as though a dinner cloche had been placed over us through the night and was slowly being lifted off.
After taking photos and and enjoying being in the fortunate position to experience that moment, we dropped back to the bothy to prepare for the day’s outing.
With us both having slightly separate aims for the trip, we decided we would run together to Loch Treig before splitting up: Tom heading east towards Corrour and the eastern edge of Ramsay’s Round; I west along the Abhainn Rath to scout out the Tranter Round line to Stob Ban.
The first section to Loch Treig started on a path but slowly turned into an indistinct trod, often through damp ground. With 7km under our belts, we arrived at Creaguaineach Lodge, seemingly an old stalkers lodge at the edge of Loch Treig. Behind it stood a company of Scots Pines, packed close together on a small hillock.
Sitting down on one of their fallen brethren, we dried out damp socks and addressed a blister, marvelling at the mini ecosystem that was thriving in this stand of pines. Stonechats and chaffinches flitted from branch to branch, with early season insects slowly awakening from their winter hibernation. With the sun streaming through the gnarled branches above, it was hard not to stay there all day.
With an effort, we picked ourselves up and parted ways. Following the Abhainn Rath this way was such an incredible insight into the life of this river. From its mouth at Loch Treig to its head at the edge of Glen Nevis is around 8km of gentle ground.
As I followed against its current, it became a companion of sorts, swinging away every so often, only to come back with fresh delight. In the early stages, I was captivated by the frothing cauldrons and foaming waterfalls, inspiring thoughts of summer afternoon dips after a long day in the hills; later, they are replaced with meandering stony bends and slower currents.
Following the great river, I eventually came across Staoineag bothy – a gingerbread house-like building teetering above the Abhainn Rath, sat in the shadows of a looming mountain and a small huddle of trees. After a quick look around, it was back on the trail, winding my way towards my third bothy of the day – Meanach.
As I ran, I was following in the footsteps of Ramsay Round hopefuls. This section is a love-or-hate one, with some enjoying the break from the endless ups and downs, whilst others are drained by the monotony and constant effort of a near-flat ground. As I hopped over stream after stream, I could image, on tired legs, cursing every little jump and sucking of energy, knowing I was only (at best) halfway there.
Rounding a corner, I spotted Meanach bothy ahead. The sky was clear and blue save for a few fluffy tendrils, with the sun hinting that spring was finally here. This was the weather we had been promised.
Where Staoineag is a bothy hemmed in by its surroundings; Meanach sits in an absence of surroundings. Flat boggy ground extends around it, with the Abhainn Rath a solid 50-meters away. The hills stand clear of it, leaving it isolated in a heathy emptiness. I can imagine in summer the bog asphodel carpeting the ground with yellow, but brown was the only colour available that day.
After reading the log book and finding a frenzied entry from someone warning against entering the supposedly-haunted Luibeilt ruins on the opposite side of the river. Had the sun not been streaming over the pages, their words might have sent a chill down my spine: “There is nothing you want to find there. This weekend will haunt me forever. DO NOT GO IN.”
Choosing to eat my lunch from the safety of this side of the river, I watched as a walker slowly made his way towards the ruins opposite. I resisted the urge to mischievously make a shrieking sound as he approached it with caution. After finishing my sandwich and idly watching the walker walk around the ruins (I do think he was actually there…) I set off in search of my line up Stob Ban.
My route contained only 920m ascent – most of which was this final stretch. I left the Abhainn Rath behind, heading north up Meall a’ Bhuirich, a typically concave shaped slope which got steeper and steeper with every step. After a gruelling knees to chest march up to 700m, a started to contour around the side, ankles pitched at 45-degrees to maintain traction on the slope.
Nearly 40-minutes later, I finally reached a terrain that was runnable, with Stob Ban’s conical summit ahead of me. The gradient to the 977m peak was so inviting, but with legs full of lactic acid I had little hope of running much of it. Instead, I drank in more of my surroundings, chuckling as I watched a covey of ptarmigans waddle their way across the hillside in their white plummage.
Finally reaching the summit, I could see our bothy home in the glen below, and gazed up towards the ridge of the Grey Corries snaking their way towards the west. Part of me was tempted to go onto Stob Coire Claurigh, but after the gruelling climb to Stob Ban I felt the legs weren’t there.
Descending steeply back towards Lairig Leacach, I could see some people milling around outside the bothy. Jogging towards it, I found two couples enjoying their lunch in the sunshine, the bothy acting like a gravitational force drawing people towards it.
As I changed and prepared for an afternoon of taking pictures and waiting for Tom, more people passed by the bothy. Bothies have this kind of draw to them. I was reminded of the Last Homely House in The Lord of the Rings; Rivendell, a refuge for travellers going to and from the wilds of the Misty Mountains. Here, people could find warmth, shelter, company, a seat, and general intrigue at the interior of the bothy.
Two chaps from the Isle of Skye showed up, both classic sea-dogs who worked on the boat yards. Sitting at the table, they set about making hot chocolate, pulling a half-drank bottle of Jim Beam, a wad of tobacco and a packet of Rizlas from their bags.
We started chatting and were soon joined by a young couple who pulled out a French press and some food. Sitting there in the afternoon sun, the five of us talked and shared a drink; an amusing mash-up of people all brought together by the bothy.
Once the chaps from Skye left, the couple – Niall and Heather, who were staying the night – and I got chatting about our day. “What have you been doing?” they asked.
I told them, adding, “My friend Tom is off running the eastern Munros over Corrour and Loch Treig. He should be back around 6pm.” Their eyes widened in horror as they looked at each other, then at me.
“Wait. No. Is he quite a tall guy?”
“Yep”, I said, now curious.
“Oh god!” they said, laughing and glowing red with embarrassment. “He saw us stark naked at the side of Loch Treig doing press ups earlier!”
This information was just as baffling and hilarious to me as it is to you. “Wait, what?” I asked.
They explained: “Well, we went skinny dipping in the loch and, to warm up after, did some push ups on the shore. We did not expect anyone to be coming around the corner!”
We laughed for a while at that, until the penny dropped: “Wait! Is he coming back here tonight?”
“Yup!” I said, barely able to contain myself. They both burst out laughing and held their heads in their hands. “Oh, well! This will be fun!” It was a very entertaining reunion when Tom did show up around four hours later.
After a hearty dinner and a solid 10-hour sleep, Tom and I made our way back to the car. It was an easy walk downhill, leaving our friends to walk back to Corrour (obviously hoping for no more trailside faux pas!).
The cloud was thick with a steady mizzle, but with a weekend of adventure and a cooked breakfast in Spean Bridge ahead, it could do little to dampen our spirits.