Wild swimming on the thieves road – Bill Whyte

Bill gives a detailed description of a great walking route

Two hundred yards out, John tried out wild swimming, or so he claims. Ian and I think he fell into the path. Yes, into the path.  Best explain:

Corrour Station House, an, excellent, up-market, SYHA guest-house, sits in total isolation and great beauty in the middle of Rannoch Moor, the latter a quacking morass at the best of times – of which this wasn’t one. A week earlier, leftovers of Hurricane Katia had dumped inches of rain on the Moor.

Our destination was the road-head at Glen Nevis, about 14 miles away, over part of the ‘Thieves Road’, where cattle reivers had once driven their booty. Our path begun as a line of planks, more than ankle deep in water, and slippery as hell. Hence John’s descent really did look as if he was heading for the abyss; chest-deep he was, before Ian managed to pull him out. Too brave to give up, he stripped off behind a rock that partly screened him from the quite busy West Highland railway line that delivers walkers to, and retrieves them from the station (no public road).  Then, spartanly dressed,  he started up again, not unreasonably shivering from cold and from mistrust of each muddy patch.

The railway line and the largely submerged path drop together down-hill for a mile and a half before the latter veers off to the East and the track improves markedly. Sadly few midgies about; our competitive trial – Deet versus Avon Skin so Soft’ – inconclusive,  but, wow, my complexion! At length the path bottoms out at Loch Treig and swings westwards over a bridged gorge of great beauty and spate of water. A little later (NN 320 686), paths divide, one south-ish towards the Blackwater Reservoir, ours continuing west and then another split, the ‘true’ Thieves’ Road taking off north, but westwards, westwards always, for us.

‘Path’a too landlubberly term, ‘unmarked shallow channel’ more accurate for much of the way, but we followed traces of earlier travellers’ footprints. We had it wet, but I doubt that you would ever be able to cross it dry-shod or even dry kneed. For once, I was wisely kitted out: waterproof trousers with only underpants below, light, non-lined, Merrell trail shoes, and Goretex socks not fully watertight but warm and a mud barrier – important when trying to scrub feet in sink after tiring day!

So far, I’ve made it sound quite awful, but in reality it was great! By now the mist and light drizzle had given way to brilliant, warm sunshine and the Abhainn (‘river’) Rath, swollen by the rains, was a mighty and gorgeous sight, on a scale so grand you could imagine being in the Canadian Rockies and expect to see a bear fishing for salmon. Waterfall succeeds to waterfall. To the north and south, mountains, many well over 3000 feet, begin to press in, shouting ‘westwards!’ westwards!

Soon we passed Staoineag Bothy (NN 294 678) across the river, said to offer a good overnight stop and reached by stepping stones, but as these were 6 feet or more under water, it could have been at the other end of the world. No matter, we picnicked, rather leisurely, upstream beside a series of waterfalls, reluctant to leave such a delightful spot. But back into the black stuff, and we climbed slowly upwards, ever west.

About half-way, this time on our side, is another bothy, (Meannanach, NN 265 684), by bothy standards very clean and comfortable-looking, with a fire-place in each of its two rooms, fuelled up from where and by whom I do not know. There were also two full size chairs and one tiddler. This was home of daddy, mummy and baby bear perhaps. As the expedition’s baby of 67 years I should have had that but grabbed one of the others. (This is a subtle way of excusing our leisurely progress, on the grounds of age).

Some distance ahead, our path was crossed at right-angles by a lone cyclopedestrian, the well-known species that delude itself the Highlands comprise an easy, well-graded velodome, probably from the Loch Eilde path (apparently quite a good cycle track) and heading north east in search of what looks on the map like a pretty terrible route. He looked grim. By now we too were beginning to flag from the marshy plod, trying to choose the best from the multitude of ‘forking paths’ (as I think John called them). It’s a slog of the mind, rather than body, for the route involves very little uphill climb and tops out at just over 1200 feet about two miles further on. (NN 237 694). Before then you have to find a way across the Allt nan Fang and something called either Allt Coire Easain or Allt Coire Rath, wetting but not dangerous.

What keeps you going is the view. The mountains are closing in now. To the south, the Mamores, a range that includes ten Munros, including those of the magnificent ‘Ring of Steall’. To the north, two obvious, huge, grey corries hang up high on the mountainside. Could these, by any coincidence have a connection with the ‘Grey Corries’ that were supposed to be around there, I pondered? The damp had obviously got to my brain. Then, giving these lords of the realm time to strut their stuff, the High King himself appeared. Ben Nevis! Yes, the curry house in Fort William flings in its customers’ faces a wall-sized photo of Mount Everest (true!), but from down here the Big, Bad, Ben looks bigger than big, more formidable than bad, and beautiful to behold. Now mostly in shade, with the black prow of North East Buttress ascending from behind the Carn Mor Dearg Arrete, it doesn’t need to bow down humbly before any mountain. As we began the rather welcome descent towards Steall, the sky above the Ben turned pink. Night was falling.

The Steall waterfall is yet another feature written on a grand scale, plunging down 120 metres into the flat valley of Steall meadow. But truth to tell we were now by necessity spurred on by the impending dark. We were too late. Night had come before we cleared the Nevis Gorge, down which the river rushes and is said to be almost Himalayan. For us, it certainly resembled a night in the Himalayas or any other dark stop, for that matter, but going through it was no laughing matter. Do not, definitely not, try to go through in the dark without a torch, preferably one each. In daytime it’s a popular tourist attraction, but even then extreme care is needed. There are unguarded drops on one side and the path is rough and twists about and up and down. We had one torch between us until a very kind stripling of around 50 came to our rescue with his and was thereby fully entitled to lecture us gently on planning for all contingencies.

Ah but even he couldn’t have foreseen John’s wonderful wild swim, or the dramatic beauty of the day that had encouraged us to linger.

Final words:

A long but not strenuous route. You don’t need to be particularly fit (or young, we are all over 67) but appropriate gear, hill experience and ability to put up with discomfort advisable. Discounting delay because of wild swim and the leisurely picnic, we took 9 hours. In better weather, a bit fitter, still plan on 8 hours to be prudent. Not a risky route, navigation, quite easy, but take Nevis Gorge warning seriously!

A gambler’s route: good weather? fantastic. Bad weather? probably miserable.

Wild swimming not compulsory!

Bill Whyte