A FREEZING cold night in March 2011 with winter reluctant to release her icy grip, a pitch black night despite the waning gibbous moon's best efforts.
I was heading to a remote bothy for a few hours' rest before tackling a big mountain day. Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor, which sit above the western end of Loch Monar in the North-west Highlands, are two of the more distant Munros.
Reaching them requires a long walk-in, either from Glen Carron to the north or Attadale to the west. Having tackled them from the former first time round with a stop at Bearnais bothy, I was keen to try the western approach this time.
Shorter daylight hours meant another bothy stay was the best option, this time using the grandly titled Bendronaig Lodge, some 12 kilometres from the road. A few hours rest and then I could set off early and circuit the hills from Loch Calavie.
In total darkness on an overcast night in open country a head torch is only good for seeing a couple of steps ahead. Beyond the limited range of the light anything could be lurking. You could easily wander into a flock of sheep or not be aware of someone coming the opposite way until the last minute, so your pace naturally slows.
With the heights still in winter condition, I was wearing heavier gear to suit every possibility. I also had a heavy pack with all the winter accoutrements like crampons and ice axe as well as sleeping bag, roll mat and emergency tent, plus extra food and drink for my night out. Two hours after setting off I was getting close to my base for the night.
Bendronaig is maintained by the Attadale estate and is one of the more better-kept bothies. It has a main room with fireplace, tables and chairs. There are three small rooms off the main one and the wooden floors throughout are in good condition. There is also the luxury of a flushing toilet, although it cannot be used during winter for fear of water freezing in the pipes.
Sitting close by is an estate lodge which looks just like a bigger version of the bothy, but at this time of year it was locked and deserted. In daylight, the pale-coloured buildings can be seen for miles around; in pitch darkness they are invisible until you are within a couple feet of them.
I arrived just before midnight. There was no light coming from the bothy and after a quick inspection of the building – no gear left waiting for return parties – it seemed I would be the sole occupant for the night. The walk in had been accompanied only by the sound of my footsteps on the loose path and the gently running current of the Black Water. If anyone was going to arrive in the night then I would surely hear them approach.
The room I chose to sleep in also had a fireplace and a table and chair but was otherwise empty. Everything had to be done by torchlight. It was bitterly cold and the temperature seemed to be dropping with every passing minute. It is eerie to be alone in total darkness and complete silence. I was constantly aware of the remote setting, miles from the road and probably any other human presence.
The windows in most bothies tend to be small, but here they were bigger, like a more modern house. The occasional appearance of the moon through the curtain-less frames got me to wondering how I would react if a face suddenly appeared at the window. Combined with the biting cold, my unease kept me tossing and turning for hours.
I must have eventually drifted off. Then I became vaguely aware of two pale figures standing together in front of the fireplace across the room. They were wearing what looked like Victorian-era clothing, the man in a tweed jacket, shirt and tie, plus-fours and something akin to a deerstalker. The woman had on a buttoned-up dress and a lace shawl over her head and shoulders.
Their soft voices drifted over. They seemed to be having a discussion about land reform. Somewhat bizarrely, it seemed perfectly natural at this point. Then a blinding white light flashed in front of my eyes and my right leg muscles tightened painfully with cramp. I leapt out of my sleeping bag desperate to ease circulation back into the muscle.
Only then did I notice the couple had vanished. And only then did I start to feel unsettled. I checked my watch. It was only 4am, but I decided I would not try to get any more sleep here tonight. I got my gear together and headed out in the wan light towards the mountains.
Subsequent inquiries failed to unearth any historical reason for my experience in that bothy, or to offer any explanation who these figures could have been. The most likely conclusion was that it was a hallucination triggered by a combination of tiredness, excessive cold and an imagination running riot, but I will likely never know for sure.
Most mountaineers will have had their own bothy fevre dream. This was certainly not the first and it won't be the last. Sweet dreams everyone.