Arriving in Scotland in January, you could have been fooled into thinking winter had been and gone. A light dusting on the distant tops did nothing to entice the numerous climbers & skiers who frequented the living room of Aviemore’s youth hostel. Clouds hung over the Cairngorms, bringing with them a sense of anticipation that maybe, just maybe, the season would soon arrive.
I visited The Cairngorms in March 2016 on a trip that was unfortunately cut short due to a misunderstanding between my right knee and a large boulder and I have been determined to return ever since. With my long suffering friend Andy arriving a couple of days after me and with some fairly long hikes scheduled, I began this trip with a short walk - heading North East from Glenmore, following the Ryvoan Pass towards Nethy Bridge. A mere 40 minutes through woodland and past the idyllic Loch Uaine and I reached Ryvoan Bothy – my home for the night.
Scottish-flag bunting adorned the walls above the fire, and the usual assortment of gas canisters and tinned food lined the windowsills opposite the sleeping platform. With the sleeping bag laid out, I headed back down the footpath in search of some firewood. There’s plenty of woodland within walking distance of the bothy so it didn’t take long for me to source enough fuel for the evening. I utilised the last of the evening light to scout some possible shots for later in the week. If the snow did arrive, there were definitely some interesting images to make here but unfortunately the current conditions didn't do much to encourage me to unload the camera gear. I bedded down for the night with the bothy to myself, and left early the following morning to meet Andy from Inverness.
Fords of Avon
The hike into Fords of Avon follows The Lairig an Laoigh, the slightly less dramatic little sister to the nearby Lairig Ghru. The beauty of this landscape however, lies in it's bleakness; remote, undulating open moorland climbs away from Ryvoan Bothy and over the Western slopes of An Lurg. From here, the track winds it's way beneath the magnificent tors of the Barns of Bynack before eventually descending alongside the burn.
Fords of Avon Refuge Hut is exactly that - a refuge hut. Strictly speaking this isn't a bothy and certainly doesn't try to disguise itself as one either; a tiny shed-like structure with boulders flanking its sides offers very basic accommodation for those seeking shelter when the weather turns against them. The conditions had been kind to us on the hike in, and aside from the negative wind-chill that stalked us all the way from An Lurg, the worst of the weather seemed to be lingering further south down the mountain pass towards Derry Cairngorm and Ben Macdui. This suited us just fine and arriving early evening, we stood at the hut and watched these conditions develop. Powerful gusts taunted us, bringing with them mild flurries of snow that hinted at harsher nights to come. One by one stars began to show themselves, gradually filling the vast skies that the Cairngorms are famed for. With the arrival of nightfall came a considerable drop in temperature, which was enough to initiate a retreat inside the refuge hut.
Despite it's limited facilities, with two people inside and the door firmly shut the wooden interior of the refuge hut offered a relatively good level of comfort and warmth, (assisted of course by multiple layers and the steam of a jetboil!). With no windows, we opened the door the following morning half-expecting to see at least the faintest dusting of snow on the ground surrounding the hut. To our surprise, there was no change from the day before, even the puddles of rain which collected in the well-trodden peat remained defiantly-unfrozen. In a similar act of defiance, I set up the 5x4 and began composing for a couple of frames despite being secretly disappointed & frustrated by the lack of snow. So far, Scotish winter had evaded us but with the MWIS reports becoming increasingly more hopeful, we hiked back to Aviemore feeling relatively positive that this trip might still pay off.
Parking at Lin O' Dee brought back many fond memories of my time here last March. The conditions back then were perfect and offered me my first real taste of winter in Scotland. Although I bagged a successful image of "Hutchy", much of the snow stayed on the eastern side of Macdui, with the melt well underway in the Lairig Ghru where Corrour is positioned. I was never happy with the work I shot at Corrour and vowed to return at the end of the project. So here I was, once again keeping everything crossed for a big dump of snow. The Mountain Weather Information Service had predicted heavy snowfall that night, so the plan was to get to Corrour in advance and effectively snow ourselves in for two nights. Three days and two nights requires a lot of kit so weight saving was a priority here: limiting the amount of loaded film I carried, strict rationing of fuel and the rather questionable transfer of Talisker into a plastic babies feeding bottle - the lightest and largest vessel we could find at the Aviemore stores!
The walk to Corrour is beautiful, yet the lengthy stretch of Land Rover tracks can get a little repetitive after a while. The mountains remained in our sights however, and before long we were crossing the Luibeg Burn and tracing the southern contours of Carn a'Mhaim which gradually brings Corrour into view. The snowline was still quite high, sitting at around 800 meters which made for an easy final approach to the bothy. Entering Corrour, we were greeted by Sebastian and Phillip; two German hill-walkers who were spending a week backpacking across The Cairngorms.
First light. Raising my head from the sleeping platform and squinting through the condensation, I could see through the window that winter had finally arrived. I sat and watched the snowflakes build on the windowsill and as my eyes adjusted to the white light the extent of the nights snowfall became clear. The 800m snowline had crept down from the munros and up to the bothy door, covering the Lairig Ghru - it wasn't deep by Scottish standards, but certainly enough to convey a sense of winter in photographs. Corrour sits beneath the 1004m Devil's Point, an impressive lump of black rock that dwarfs the bothy. In order to capture both of these elements, I climbed the western slopes of Carn a' Mhaim to get some elevation. 60mph gusts were funnelling down the mountain pass bringing with them painful waves of spindrift. Taking cover behind a conveniently placed boulder I hunkered down and began shooting.
Large Format is a slow process, but it's amazing how fast you can move when the conditions play ball. Spindrift whirled around Devil's Point and the sun did it's best to penetrate through the grey and white. Brief breaks in the cloud allowed the rays to light up the bothy, which appeared overwhelmed by it's surroundings. Satisfied with the shots I'd managed to get we picked our way through the frozen heather towards the bothy, crossing the River Dee and arriving just as another set of powerful gusts thundered down the hillside.
Today was Andy's birthday, which also coincided with our last bothy-night of the project. With some impressive winter-shots in the bag, we spent our evening celebrating outside Corrour and reminiscing over some of the journeys this project has taken us on over the last two years. With the entire glen to ourselves, we stood in the snow drinking whisky out of the trusty feeding-bottle with the slightly unorthodox soundtrack of Metallica's 'Ride The Lightning' playing from Andy's iPhone. As the evening rolled on, the freezing gusts and spindrift did little to deter the mood despite knocking us off our feet on more than one occasion!
The following morning, the intense conditions that had buffeted us for the last few days were replaced by blue skies, bright sunshine and not a breath of wind. The frozen ground squeaked and cracked under the weight of our boots, and the sound of Ptarmigans echoed around the pass. The peace and tranquillity was only briefly interrupted by the roar of a low-flying RAF Typhoon which cut through the air just outside Corrour. As the jet disappeared behind Ben Macdui, the stillness returned. We navigated the short trip south along the track we came in on to try and bag a couple more images of Corrour from a slightly different perspective before loading up our packs one last time and beginning the long trudge back to Lin O' Dee.
Naturally, as soon as we set off the wind and snow returned ensuring that we had some unfriendly company hampering our journey! The rapidly changing conditions made for some great photographic opportunities however, and I walked with the D-SLR in hand. catching the continuing battle between rough & fair weather playing out over Beinn Bhrotain. Reaching the car as night fell, we eventually found a road that hadn't been closed due to snowfall and drove back towards Aviemore.
Return to Ryvoan
With Winter now in full swing, I decided to spend my final day back at Ryvoan bothy to attempt some compositions I'd scouted at the beginning of the week. It's incredible how quickly the landscape can transform in five short days. The green and brown tree covered walls of the Ryvoan Pass were now a stark, cold contrast of black and white and ski tracks cut there way through the powder snow that now dressed the footpaths.
Arriving at Ryvoan, I sat on the flat rock beside the bothy and gazed out towards An Lung and the route Andy & I took to Fords of Avon at the start of the week. "Nice day for it!", came a voice from the bothy door. An older gentleman in a large blue down jacket and mittens strolled over towards me. Clasping his hands against his face and exhaling in an attempt to regain some sort of sensation in his nose from the cold air, we began chatting. Lindsay works on maintaining the footpaths over on the Glen Feshie estate but had taken some time out to spend a number of weeks walking and bothying in the Cairngorms. Moving back inside the bothy, Lindsay had a good fire going and a pot of fresh coffee which he handed to me. One by one the bothy filled up and in typical bothy-fashion, the coffee continued to be passed around accompanied by a selection of biscuits, chocolate and whatever else people had carried in their packs. I took Lindsay and another walker, Lucy, outside and after a rushed portrait session dashed up the 810m Corbett behind Ryvoan - Meall a' Bhuachaille to set up the final shot of the project. The light was perfect as I tried to reach a suitable spot - the sun was setting behind Cairn Gorm and casting a stunning golden light down the pass and directly onto the bothy but the light was fading fast. I anxiously checked over my shoulders as I climbed and upon finding the perfect location, I rammed the tripod into the snow and fumbled around with the camera trying to compose, focus, meter and load the film before the sun disappeared for the evening.
Packing up the 5x4 for the final time and walking the snowy tracks towards Glenmore, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. I began this project in April 2015 in the Lake District and spent my first bothy night there in October of the same year. Since then, I've been fortunate enough to spend all of my available time travelling the United Kingdom, discovering these beautiful remote shelters and meeting some of the most incredible people I've ever met.
Teeming with character and history, these remote shelters are tirelessly maintained by volunteers to allow us the opportunity to enjoy some of our most wild and lonely places. The landscapes of the British Isles hold many stories. Bothies and the culture that surrounds them is just one. Thank you for coming on this journey with me, and I hope the work encourages you to head out into the hills to become part of that story.
Nicholas White, February 2017