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Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights

Alastair Humphreys

The shelters are basic, but when the weather is howling, those times when you think ‘this is miserable, but the misery does mean something’, a night in a bothy might be all you need.

When I’m stuck in the city, chasing deadlines and dollars and other men’s dreams, I often wish I could escape to something different. When I’m jostled by crowds, hammering furiously at emails, working for money not love, I like to let my mind drift away to something that I really care about instead. Imagine, I say to myself, imagine this: I could jump on the sleeper train tonight, fall asleep in London and wake up in the massive silence of the mountains. Imagine that. I really could do it. And so I do.

The sleeper train is, without question, my favourite way of getting to the Highlands of Scotland. It is a magical experience and an adventure in itself. I boarded the train with that same surging excitement I had as a child exploring a holiday cottage for the first time. I bagsied the top bunk in my cabin, heaving bags up onto the bed. Then I scampered down the narrow corridor to the bar. I took a seat and ordered a couple of beers. I am always excited by the beginning of an adventure, and the only grown-up way I know how to express this level of happiness is by ordering beers in twos.

The sleeper train always creeps and creaks out of London at a snail’s pace. I like this. Night settled over the city as I sipped my beer and looked out at the glistening lights of tall buildings. On train journeys I love the brief glimpses of so many lives as I sweep through cities and towns. But that night my eyes were drawn higher, above the rooftops and the chimney stacks, and up to the sky. I was thinking about the wild world beyond my city life.

Sleeping on the train reminds me of a gentle night at sea in a narrow berth. Rocking gently back and forth, carried onwards through the darkness. I sat up in bed and reached to raise the window blind. Even though I knew what to expect, I still grinned with anticipation. The Cairngorms – sun-dappled brown flanks and flat snow-covered tops – filled the window. Goodbye city! Hello mountains! I went to Scotland to cram a week full of three of the things I love most in life. I went there to ride my mountain bike, to play with my camera, and to sleep in bothies.

A bothy is a simple shelter, in remote country, for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places. Bothies are left unlocked and are available for anyone to use free of charge. The shelters are basic, but when the weather is howling, those times when you think ‘this is miserable, but the misery does mean something’, a night in a bothy might be all you need.

Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

bothy-scotland-12

You have to take your own supplies, gather firewood, scoop cold water from a nearby stream, perhaps even brace the rickety door against a seething gale with a boulder. Any facilities you might discover are a bonus and are a considerable luxury. Perhaps there may be a string to hang drying socks, a candle stub in an old whisky bottle, or a small pile of chopped firewood ready by the hearth. All kindly left behind by the last person to use the bothy. A bothy, in other words, has absolutely everything I need. It offers shelter from the weather, and it provides me with a purpose for going out into the mountains in the first place.

My plan was to stay in a different bothy every night. I’d get to them on my mountain bike, and I’d use a hire car to zip from area to area so that I could get round virtually the whole of Scotland in a week. I’d love to do the whole trip by bike, but just didn’t have time.

I’ve stayed in various bothies over the years. I’ve read about them in books and blogs. And I have friends with far more Scottish wilderness experience than me. Over time, I’ve put together a wish-list of bothies that I really wanted to visit. The best bothies are the remote ones – they are difficult to access, hard to find, and all the better for that. It’s the journey there that matters, and the harder it is, the more worthwhile it is.

Suilven is widely considered to be one of Scotland’s most beautiful mountains. I pedalled towards that unmistakable shark’s fin of rock, grinning like a fool. Suilven is so steep and dramatic that it appears higher than it actually is. It doesn’t suffer the crowding curse of being a Munro, and I had its bothy to myself as I arrived in beautiful Easter sunshine. I filled my pan from a stream, cooked something to eat, and gazed out of the window at the mountain’s starkly magical profile. My home for the night, with a view better than any fancy hotel’s, was completely free. I slept that night a very happy man.

Assynt is such a wild and beautiful place that I had to remind myself that I was still in the UK; that I was only a train ride from London, and had not somehow been transported to Patagonia. It makes for harder mountain biking than I am accustomed to though, so I felt I had definitely earned a second breakfast by the time I reached the legendary pie shop in Lochinver.

I filled my pan from a stream, cooked something to eat, and gazed out of the window at the mountain’s starkly magical profile. My home for the night, with a view better than any fancy hotel’s, was completely free. I slept that night a very happy man.
Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

The shelters are basic, but when the weather is howling, those times when you think ‘this is miserable, but the misery does mean something’, a night in a bothy might be all you need.

I wanted to experience a range of Scotland’s landscapes as well as different bothies. So I battled through heather and gales to reach a tiny bothy perched on a headland, ideal for spotting basking sharks. Another evening’s bothy, along the coast, was by a pristine white beach, tucked at the foot of the fells. Turquoise waves smashed ferociously up the beach and I was the only soul for miles around that night. I stood and savoured the emptiness until it felt as though it would overwhelm me. My footprints were the only marks on that beach. By morning the waves had washed them away and as I pedalled away from the bothy there was no trace that I had ever been there.

However, on my way to another, high in the Cairngorms, I did leave trace of my passing. My footprints and tyre tracks sank deep into the snow as I slogged up a wide, lonely valley. I always find the Cairngorms a little melancholy, but the churring call of grouse cheered me up. High above me a group of deer stood stock-still and stared at my plodding progress towards the welcome shelter of four stone walls and a simple tin roof.

I remember reading once that the best cure for loneliness is solitude. My week in bothies felt like an adequate test of that concept. My favourite bothy night, alone in a shelter clinging to the cliffs above a maelstrom of milky white waves and swirling gulls at the very edge of the world, left me almost bursting with contentment. Someone had left a compendium of poetry behind, and I read by candlelight in my sleeping bag. The flame flickered as the gale outside plucked at the smallest of gaps in the rough stone walls. The walls were rough, yet beautiful. In this remote place, they had been built with care and love. A central wooden column supported the roof, and a tiny wood-burning stove was inset into the boulders of the cliff wall. In the morning, as I sipped tea, I gazed out of the window at the cliffs and the eternal movement of the ocean. I felt calmer and more relaxed than I had in a long time. That bothy was the hardest to reach out of all of them, and worth every ounce of effort.

My favourite riding of the week was to a far-off bothy I had never visited before. At the last minute a friend of mine, Alex, texted to say he happened to be in the area and that he could join me. It was fun then to contrast the experience of bothying in solitude to sharing the place with a friend and his energetic dog. After the days of quiet I enjoyed chattering away as we rode, puffing away on the rocky climbs, whooping and scything on the descent, dropping fast and far down to a lovely valley beside a river lined with wizened old alder trees. We reached the bothy in warm afternoon sunlight, with time to enjoy pottering around and reading the stories of those who had been before us in the well-thumbed Bothy Book. Each bothy has one of these books and I like to flick through them and read of other people’s experiences; the unexpected piss-ups, the disturbed sleep in wild gales, the weary limbs and glowing faces from a long day in the hills.

Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

Mountain Bikes And Bothy Nights - Photo by Al Humphreys

That night Alex slept outside. It was a fine night to be outside. The weather was mild and the stars blazed with that brilliance which never fails to stop me in my tracks when I escape from the blurred skies of the city to somewhere wild where the whole universe was on show. Northern lights swirled above the peaks. But I wanted to make the most of every one of my bothy nights. So I lay inside in front of the fire, its red embers pulsing a warm glow as I fell asleep.

I rose early to perch on a big, cold boulder beside a small stream and watch the sun’s first rays set the mountains to the west ablaze with colour. I hummed with happiness. One day like this a year would see me right.

I hope to keep making journeys to the wilderness throughout my life. I don’t need to head to the ends of the earth these days. I don’t need to be gone for months on end. Something as small as returning, again and again, to a favourite bothy is all I need. It’s a chance to measure my life, to rebalance and reset and refresh, to think back and to look forward and to dream anew. Bothies are a part of the constancy that heading into the hills gives you, however your life changes.

If you’d like to visit a bothy or help care for one, visit www.mountainbothies.org.uk/helpingus



I hummed with happiness. One day like this a year would see me right.

Alastair is an adventurer, author, blogger and motivational speaker. He was chosen as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2012.

Website:www.alastairhumphreys.com
Twitter: twitter.com/Al_Humphreys
Instagram: instagram.com/Al_Humphreys
Facebook: facebook.com/Alastair-Humphreys

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