It may be just a glorified garden shed, but the Fords of Avon Refuge proves literally a lifesaver when John Burns finds himself ambushed by some unexpected winter.
I stand for a few moments, gathering my breath, so I can take the next step. The soft, thigh-deep snow, holds my legs in a tight grip, like a toddler pleading for sweets. I heave myself out of the cold, wet pot holes and take a few steps on the snow. The icy crust holds my weight for a few seconds before it cracks and I plunge, for the hundredth time that day into the melting snow and icy water beneath. I have travelled four feet since I was last in this position and my rucksack gets heavier with every step. It’s taken me ten minutes to move 100 metres. They say hope springs eternal but it can just as easily turn into despair.
Winters in these islands are fickle, one moment you are buffeted by blizzards and warmed by a gentle sun the next. This year, winter was even less predictable than usual, in fact, we barely had a winter at all. The dire warnings of blizzards, that brought hope to climbers and skiers alike, never materialised. Our hills were only fleetingly graced with white and most of the season remained depressingly black.
I decided that, as there was so little snow and winter had already left the hills, I would head into the heart of the Cairngorms and spend a night in a bothy I'd long dreamt of, the distant Faindouran. Poring over the map, I had realised that the little shelter would be a long walk from any direction. I had set off early that morning, my pack bulging with coal and comforts, full of optimism for the day ahead.
"It was here, as I approached the Fords of Avon, where the great glens of the Cairngorms converge, that winter ambushed me"
That morning, as I trekked past the Green Lochan and made my way up through the twisted Scots Pine, the remnants of the old Caledonian forest, it felt as though spring had come early. Even though it was still mid-March it was warm in the glen, and the high hills were only dotted with odd patches of snow. As I left the narrow cleft of the glen and walked on beyond where Ryvoan bothy sits, huddled at the foot of the hill, I stepped out in the vast rolling landscape that leads into the heart of these mountains. I have been coming to the Cairngorms for over forty years but their scale always surprises me. Here, my eyes took in miles of open country in one sweep, great expanses of heather topped, here and there, by rocky outcrops rounded by millennia of wind and rain.
It is a long climb over the shoulder of the mountain, Bynack More, and I was grateful when I reached its rounded crest and began the descent into the Fords of Avon basin, the true heart of the Cairngorm mountains. I was relaxed, if a little leg weary and already looking forward to sitting beside the small bothy stove, warming myself, at the end of the day. It was here, as I approached the Fords of Avon, where the great glens of the Cairngorms converge, that winter ambushed me.
My pack feels much heavier now and great banks of snow sweep down from the hills. Despite the warmth of the day, the river is covered in sheets of thick ice. This is where winter has been hiding, waiting for me to bumble over the horizon. At first I fought my way down through the deep snow into to the glen and told myself that the lower down the snow would be thinner and the going easier. Now I’m lower in the glen I can see that snow is even deeper and the going harder.
The little stove in Faindouran seems a long way off now and I am overtaken by the growing realisation that I no longer have the strength to walk back out the way I came. Ominous clouds begin to loom over the mountains around me, like school-yard bullies. I’m not going to make the bothy. Suddenly I feel alone and vulnerable in this vast place. To my right is Loch Avon, its grey waters surrounded by towering cliffs as it sits beneath Cairngorm with its wind scoured summit. Ahead of me the glen leads to the south, to Derry Lodge and ultimately, Braemar. To my left another glen heads for Tomintoul, many miles away. It is in this glen that Faindouran sits, but it is over four miles away and I doubt if I am making one mile per hour in this frozen soup. Already the light is fading, storm clouds are gathering and my situation is growing serious.
"I no longer have the strength to walk back out the way I came... Suddenly I feel alone and vulnerable in this vast place"
Then I remember the Fords of Avon refuge, a little emergency shelter that must be close by. The last time I visited the place it wasn’t much more than a metal box resembling a dog kennel. I recall opening the door and finding the floor running with water. A night in that cold place does not have much appeal but I realise I am rapidly running out of both energy and options.
From somewhere in my head an image appears, it’s someone called Neil drinking beer in a newly renovated bothy. It’s possible that the place I am remembering is the Refuge, so maybe it’s been renovated. It’s hard to be sure because there are lots of photos of someone called Neil drinking beer in bothies.
The refuge is very close now, it’s been close for a long time, so tortuously slow is my progress. At last I stand beside the refuge and indeed it has been renovated! The metal box is gone, replaced by what looks like a garden shed, heavily insulated, with rocks piled around it. Inside the there is no furniture and I can barely stand, but at least the floor is dry and I am out of the weather.
Thud! I crack my head on a low beam. This place has been cleverly designed. It must have taken them ages to get the beams at exactly the right height to collide with the top of my skull. Thud! As I stagger about from one concussive impact to the next I realise that the beams are here to teach me a lesson.
Thud! You are an old man and should be at home watching Countdown.
Thud! You should have known there would be snow here.
Thud! Your days of running about the hills are over.
While wind and rain hammer at the shelter my candle flame burns undisturbed, a testimony to how weatherproof this place is. In my duvet jacket I am remarkably comfortable. With little else to do I while away the hours reading the graffiti on the wooden walls. Why is it people feel the need to mark their passage by scribbling on things? The Mountain Bothies Association even provides a book and a pen so you can let us know you were here; but that’s not good enough, people still have to mark the place with names and dates.
A party from Harrogate once had lunch here, and some bloke called Ken from Manchester is a regular visitor. Zoe Partington leaves nothing more than her name; I wonder who she is and what brought her to this remote spot.
I pass the night in the little shelter, dwarfed by Cairngorm giants and alone in the darkness. As I sit dozing, sipping my whisky, I raise a glass to the people who renovated this tiny haven; for without it and their efforts, I would have struggled through a harsh night and perhaps I wouldn’t have seen the dawn. The Fords of Avon Refuge was not built to be just another bothy. This place was not put here for Zoe to eat her sandwiches in. This place was built to save the lives of the unlucky and the foolish, of which I am both. This place was built for nights like this.
It is the combination of John’s love of the outdoors with his passion for writing and performance that make him a uniquely powerful storyteller. In his writing, John tells tales of his travels in the mountains, in his performance he talks of the profound relationship between men and wild places.
Despite the serious subjects he deals with, humour is always close to the surface in everything he does. In his new book The Last Hillwalker John brings together over forty year’s experience in the mountains of the British Isles to stories from our hills with humour and compassion.
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