The plan for this bothy weekend was simple enough. Walk in to Ben Alder Cottage (aka McCook’s Bothy, after the last permanent resident), climb Ben Alder and Ben Bheil, do a little trout fishing and generally have a good time.
In hill walking circles, this bothy is supposed to be haunted, with all sorts of spine-tingling tales about the demise of McCook, and stories about a madwoman eating her own baby, but Donnie Wilson of Laggan can disprove the legend, click here to read his account.
For our group, circumstances meant that on the day we divided into two parties, Johnny and I going in mid-afternoon, with Frank, Bill and Donald starting three hours behind. Leaving the car at the end of the road, we soon got started on the long trudge through the forest and over the hill down to Loch Ericht side.
This was familiar territory for us both, so as the loch came into sight, with the forest fringing the shore up to An Grianan and the huge bulk of Ben Alder behind, we knew that the view was deceptive, and that it would be quite a plod before we crested the final brow to see the Bothy, nestling at the side of Alder Bay.
Heavy rain earlier that morning meant that the river beside the bothy was in full flow, so the little timber bridge beside the bothy was very welcome, even a little scary to cross as the water thundered below, and, as the first to arrive, we had our pick of the accommodation, spread our gear out and soon had a fire going.
Boots clumping on the ground outside meant that we would not be on our own, the new team being a mixed group of fishermen and walkers, tired after trekking in from Corrour and with blisters to prove it. We settled in for the evening, sawing up the roots and wood thoughtfully left by previous visitors (an unforgivable sin is to leave the bothy without fuel for the next visitor) and preparing the evening meal.
Johnny, skivvying in a way very familiar to Mrs McCook, had cooked a tasty lamb casserole and magicked up a bottle of Merlot to help the digestive processes along, and looking outside after the meal, I saw head torches glinting on the skyline as a party crested the last bluff and started the descent towards the bridge. Donald arrived soon afterwards, with news that Frank and Bill were about 30 minutes behind and moving slowly over the very rough ground.
Everything seemed to be alright with the world, and we were mellowing out, with a small convivial dram, when things suddenly went pear-shaped. The door burst open to reveal Frank with the dramatic (sobering, even) message “Bill has broken his leg!”. It seemed that Bill had stepped over a boulder and put his foot down a concealed hole in the peat; Frank thought that it was a simple below the knee fracture and he reported that Bill was fully conscious, in a secure position and not in unbearable discomfort.
All thoughts of a relaxing bothy evening evaporated as we swung into rescue mode; a quick review of the available assets showed inadequate material to build a stretcher, but enough first-aid kit to handle a small front line casualty dressing station. Collecting the medical supplies and all of the spare petzl batteries we could find, we set off back up the hill in the dark and (isn’t Scotland predictable!) pouring rain.
Frank led us back to the accident site without any problems, Bill had been told to blow a whistle when he saw torchlight coming and he was taking this advice very seriously – we could hear the noise from the bothy!
Bill seemed to be cheerful enough, so after reviewing my mental first aid checklist (casualty conscious, lucid, able to explain what had happened, check for signs of head injury like obvious blood, contusion, pupils different size, etc), I gave a ‘hands-on’ examination. By unzipping his overtrousers, it was possible to see and feel the location of the fracture – the break was simple (no blood, protruding bones and/or gross misalignment), so we splinted him up by tying his legs together with a combination of broad elastic and triangular bandages.
Placing a rucsack under his knees for padding and support, we maneuvered him back into the bivvy bag, and with a sleeping mat under and his unzipped sleeping bag tucked around him he was ready for evacuation.
Meanwhile, Donald and Johnny were poring over the map, working out an exact map reference and agreeing on the wording of the message that Johnny would take out to raise the alarm, then with our admonitions to ‘gang warily’ ringing in his ears, Johnny set off into the pitch dark and pouring rain, head-down for a quick traverse of the eight or nine miles back to the car.
It was one of those weekends for which the epithet “character building” was designed. I remember the relief I felt upon reaching the bothy with a ridiculously heavy load, but the prospect of dining royally for the weekend made the additional weight worthwhile, (for the first five miles!). Minimum gear and maximum grub! Loads of fresh veg, real milk, 1lb of lamb, a bottle of red wine and a bottle of real drink.
After scoffing a cracking meal, knocking back the plonk and making a fair sized hole in the wood pile (and the whisky) our best laid plans ganged agley at a hell of a rate! – Frank popped his head in, dropped his bombshell and we were forcibly transformed into as rough an approximation of a well oiled (extremely well oiled!) piece of machinery that we could manage under the libational circumstances. Provisions were chucked into a rucksack (1 sleeping bag, 1 bivvy bag and 1 chocolate biscuit), torches were retrieved and maps were examined as we set off up the hill to find a “friend” who had just become a “casualty”.
With the sum total of the navigational advice being “keep the loch on your left then turn right”, I left the accident scene, with Bill (who I’d never met before, or have since) moaning softly as Trevor “made him comfortable”.
Five minutes after plunging in to the blackness of a fierce highland storm, I was chest deep in the blackness of a fierce highland peat bog, wishing I’d taken the time to don over-trousers and gaiters. Two will ‘o’ the wisps loomed out of the darkness, heading for the bothy, they assured me I was near the path so I ploutered on, knee-deep in muck, hoping I was sober enough to hit an 18 mile loch. Briefly, a break in the clouds revealed a slender, silver sheen that, thankfully, was indeed on my left. Objective achieved, it was a case of trotting on with the head torch off and the gale spewing froth from the loch in my face for the next two miles of boggy shore line.
After crossing the river at the head of the loch, a quick check of the map and compass and a head dook and drink from the burn gave me an excuse for a breather. Time to turn right. I estimated where the path to Loch Rannoch was and headed up into the hills in an ever-densening white bubble that, once again, necessitated switching off the torch and trusting to the feel of the ground on my boots and the frequency with which I was stumbling to show me the path.
Two things are still with me from this stretch of the journey: The first, a gargantuan roar not twenty feet away in the cotton-wool gloom of the highest point of the moorland ‘path’, which prompted me to shout “I’m no’ a deer,” repeatedly, as my pace quickened to distance me from an irate and possibly lovesick stag. The second, a sudden and dramatic abatement of the storm and parting of the mist and clouds, and an unspeakably beautiful moonlight vista of Loch Rannoch and the surrounding hills. I tilted myself forward and a dreary moorland climb became a floodlit descent through an iridescent forest. The relative silence as the storm eased was punctured only by the staccato thwap! of vibram on wet track , and by a series of curses prompted by a couple of ten foot fences which had to be wearily surmounted.
The last few miles passed in a dream. At the car I prised my sodden boots off, slipped on my trainers and hurtled down the road looking for a farm, with the groans of Bill, lying in the heather, still ringing in my ears. Thirty five minutes and what seemed like a dozen farm houses later, I succeeded in finding a phone and raising the alarm. I remember the frustration of realising that cars in driveways showed that the inhabitants were reluctant to involve themselves in any late night drama, although the unearthly racket I was making and the fact I resembled the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ may be mitigating circumstances.
Polis phoned and rescue underway, I drove back to the glen and, still in sodden and soiled clothing, climbed into the back of a car which was a foot too short to allow anything but fitful rest. No sooner had I dropped off than I was rudely awakened by the headlights of a police Land Rover, in which I was soon interrogated by an affable policeman.
It seemed that the message had been relayed around the force as they decided who’s patch the incident was on. During the relay the message had been misinterpreted as being, ‘the casualty is comfortably ensconced in the bothy’. After being suitably enlightened, the constable arranged for the deployment of a helicopter which I had foolishly believed had been called out an hour earlier. A sergeant also appeared on the scene and contingency plans were made in case the weather was too bad for the chopper.
At one point a boat was mentioned, I selfishly perked up at the thought of a lift back in a powerboat to a fire, food, dry clothes and some plasters for my badly bleeding feet. It was not to be however. Bill was airlifted safely, the polis departed at 4.30 and I hunched in the back of the car for two hours before donning socks and boots that felt and looked like wet clay and limping back to the bothy along a path I could (and may) have walked with my eyes shut.
I arrived in the smirr of a rapidly improving highland morning as the others were getting ready for a day on the hill. My foray on the hills however was restricted to the following day – the walk out!
Trevor’s story resumed
It was 2045 before Bill was settled down, Johnny’s torchlight disappeared into the gloom and Donald went back down to the bothy to finish his meal, promising to bring back some hot soup and coffee. Frank and I were in bivvy bags, with our backs against a rock, sipping Bill’s whisky (medically unwise for him to drink), and, despite the intermittent rain we were reasonably comfortable.
Frank can sleep anywhere, so he was soon snoring away, but my attention was divided between checking on Bill’s condition, worrying about Johnny (I had broken a golden rule by letting him go alone, what if he falls into a hole, no one will know where he is, or that we have a rescue situation up here) and thoughts about the likely means of rescue. With poor visibility, mist at treetop level and intermittent heavy rain, helicopter extraction seemed increasingly unlikely and the remoteness of our location meant that land or water based approaches would take a long time to plan and implement.
At midnight, Donald came back up with the promised soup and coffee, so we talked the situation over, our best estimate being that Johnny would reach Loch Rannoch side by 0030 hours and that organised rescue efforts would be initiated by 0100 at the earliest. Allowing 45 minutes scramble time, plus 60 minutes flying, the earliest arrival would be about 0300 hrs.
Bill seemed to be OK, he was playing a full part in our discussions and we kept his morale up by promising him a ride on the ‘paraffin budgie’ – so with no option other than to just sit it out, we sent Donald back to the bothy, switched off the head torches and settled back into our bivvy bags. Suddenly, I was awake, sure that I could hear a helicopter coming up the loch, I scrambled out of my bivvy, only to be disappointed when I realised that the sound was Frank snoring, giving a creditable imitation of a Sea King at cruising speed.
Eventually, we heard the welcome sound of a real helicopter arriving, swinging in from the loch and circling the edge of the forest before setting down about 50 meters away. The winchman came over and within a few minutes we had Bill strapped on the stretcher and stuffed into the Sea King.
Close-in, the sheer size of the thing was impressive, with engine noise and warm exhaust down draught combined with a strong smell of paraffin fumes, inside, blue lights were blinking and the Pilot and Navigator were checking their instruments and preparing for takeoff.
When everything was ready, the winchman stood outside, watching as the engines revved up, checking that the wheels came clear of the boggy ground then jumping aboard with a final wave as the chopper lifted into a low hover. After a pause, the engine note increased and the machine slowly climbed away, turning on a course back up the loch and on to the Belford Hospital in Fort Gilliam. Our job done, we tidied up the accident site before trudging wearily down to the cottage, lit by the pre-dawn glow and with the full moon reflecting off the loch and lighting up the rocky ramparts of Sgairneach Mhor.
I knew I’d done it before I hit the ground. You hear it go. The pain comes later, but much worse is the feeling of sheer disgust with oneself. Also difficult was the 45 minutes or so lying alone in the dark while Frank went on to the bothy to get the others.
Quickly, you work out that it’s going to be a long night. You’re ten miles from anywhere (the nearest road) with two miles of rough ground to the nearest track and it’s a dirty, wet night with low cloud. Frank said, “blow the whistle every 3 minutes”. I think I blew it about every 10 seconds. You have to do something.
I knew I was lucky. Frank and Trevor are very experienced mountain walkers and Trevor has been years in the Killin Mountain Rescue Team. The process of being made comfortable was not comfortable (binding the bad leg to the good one and getting me on my back). The bandage seemed miles long and I was beginning to feel like an Egyptian mummy.
Amazingly, once settled in the survival bag on my mat, with a rucksack under my knees and another as a pillow I felt fine. It was worse for the others. Frank and Trevor, instead of having a great night in the bothy had to bunk down beside me (they did choose the lee of a big boulder and they had nicked my whisky) and of course Johnny, in his 30s, had to take on the dreadful job of walking out in the dark the eight or nine miles we had just walked in.
And so the long wait and much thinking. I soon worked out that the earliest help could come would be four hours, but with the low cloud a helicopter probably wouldn’t make it. Frank’s snoring was a great comfort, a kind of normality. Warm (thanks to Paramo clothing), but wet (I could not stop the rain dripping down my neck into the bag: rusty camp craft), my only real problem was the leg going into spasms and shaking like mad. I found slow deep breathing cured that.
Shortly after 3am, about six hours after Johnny had set out; I heard it, the gorgeous sound, the ‘M.A.S.H.’ sound. What ‘deus ex machina’ are these helicopter crews. Within seconds, it seemed, they were with me listening to Trevor’s report. I refused painkillers. I wanted to savour this bit. Onto the stretcher across 50 yards of rough ground. On board and away. Fort William in about 15 minutes, me trebly floating: airborne, euphoric, and on laughing gas. Emergency in Belford Hospital was bedlam. This was Saturday night Sunday morning in a Scottish town. This one seemed to have more than its share of belligerent, abusive drunks giving the nurses and doctors a hard time. I was different. I was so glad to be there. So they treated me nicely.
Bad news: “X-ray shows you’ve got a complicated break, we can’t deal with it here” – “You’ll have to go to a hospital with an orthopaedic department so we’ll take you to Raigmore in the morning”.
“No, please not Inverness, that’s the wrong direction, I live in Callander!”. Eventually I persuaded them to take me to Stirling. I was learning to beat the system. The police were by my bedside at 8am, only to check if I had informed next of kin. Apparently, folk, probably reporters, listen in on short wave to police messages hoping to pick up exciting news. Had I died I would have been famous. As it was I did make the 7am BBC Scottish news and three lines in the Courier: ‘retired elderly man’.
The ambulance men had never been to Stirling (“we only go to Inverness”). Directing them was tricky. I didn’t know where we were and nor did they. But somehow they found the hospital (of course there are signs). Excitement over. End of Bill’s story in the Trauma Ward (28) of Stirling Royal. Not a bad place to spend a couple of weeks watching World Cup rugby.
6 thoughts on “McCook’s Bothy Blues – ‘Bill Thompson’s Lost Weekend at Ben Alder Cottage’”
Remarkable lads and well done to all concerned.
EVERYONE venturing into the Scottish hills,not only the mountains should read your story for these reasons:
1.The terrain that you have to encounter.
2.The changeable weather.
3.The remoteness of some Bothies/Shelters.
4.Most importantly for this generation of hillwalkers/climbers
Do Not rely on any mobile phone or internet connection.
Map & Compass skills, appropriate wet weather clothing,and emergency kit are crucial when exploring the Scottish Highlands.
All very simple points to many experienced walkers.
But what would the outcome have been if your story had involved inexperienced walkers.
Worth thinking about?
And again well done lads to all concerned.👌
Glad you enjoyed it Albert, there are so many mountain and bothy tales out there.
This made for very interesting and also informative reading, the people concerned were marvellous and very efficient, I felt for them all but Johnny was incredible and deserves a special mention. I felt as if I was there with him slogging through the mire, so please it turned out well in the end.
Glad you enjoyed the tale Roy. I made many visits to the cottage from 1980 to about 2000, a wonderful bothy with good trout fishing!
Was this before mobile phones? I find my Vodafone mobile can get a signal just about anywhere, especially in Scotland.
Interesting to read the tale from several different viewpoints.
Still need to go to Ben Alder cottage for a night sometime – one of the bothies I haven’t visited yet…
Vodaphone signal dissappearing is one sure way of telling your train is coming in to Pitlochry. 😄 Time to get your luggage down but too late to tell anyone you’re arriving.
VF used to be good, for voice at least. 999 should work on any compatible network but you’d be unlikely to find any at all 10 miles from anywhere.