The Steall Hut in upper Glen Nevis is maintained by Lochaber Mountaineering Club and sits at the head of the Nevis Gorge looking out over the splendid Steall meadows. Access is by a path along the gorge with the sting in the tail being the requirement to cross the river by way of the famous wire bridge with (in our case) the fast flowing current a few feet below. On the 17th and 18th March 2017 the Club enjoyed its first visit to this hut although a couple of members had had a gas there a few years previously.
Raymond Evenden, James Fraser, George Henderson, Susan Henderson, Ian Millar, Ian Pollock Norrie Shand, Gerry Weir
George and Susan had set off early on Friday morning with the intention of climbing the Corbett of Garbh Bheinn, south of Loch Leven. However, sitting in their car with the incessant rain splattering off their windscreen, they wisely decided to leave it for another day and instead joined the cagoul clad tourists in Fort William.
Norrie, having heeded the weather forecast had already decided he wouldn’t be walking that day (other than the mile and a half into the hut). Rendezvous was arranged with George and Susan in Morrison’s, Fort William and some calories were consumed before they headed off for the walk in.
The rain had eased slightly (and temporarily) by the time they reached the car park and the walk up the gorge was pleasant enough with the lively waters below rushing down the rocky ravine. The bridge was negotiated without mishap and soon they were ensconced in the hut scratching their heads trying to work out how to get the gas and electricity going. The finest technical brains in Perthshire did finally manage to get the gas flowing and the fire lit, but the gas-driven generator which was meant to provide the hut with electricity proved beyond them.
Raymond and James had met up with Gerry and arrived not too long afterwards and although they did manage briefly to get the generator going it conked out in less time than McGrandles in a free bar! The generator had run out of oil and with no reserve supply available it was reckoned that this was the problem. Atmospheric candle light would therefore be the order of the weekend.
With hut being situated in such an awkward spot there was obviously difficulty in keeping it properly maintained and some time was spent emptying water out of the kitchen drawers. There was nothing that could be done though about the leaky roof which rendered some of the bunks unusable.
As daylight began to fade a group of six walkers were spotted on the south bank of the Water of Nevis – and on the east side of the Allt Coire a Mhail which was hurtling viciously down the An Steall waterfall. This tributary joins the main river just east of the wire bridge. The severely swollen rivers meant that these walkers faced a very difficult and dangerous river crossing to reach the relative sanctuary of the hut and the bridge which would take them back to the car park.
Eventually four of the guys, who formed a separate group, managed to negotiate the Allt Coire a Mhail with the aid of a rope although we were later to learn that their crossing was anything but straightforward. As they passed the hut, it was clear they were in no mood for prolonged conversation as they stomped homeward in their soggy gear. We could see the other two walkers, head torches shining, heading back upstream along the Water of Nevis, presumably looking for an easier crossing further east – but with each step taking them further from their destination.
In the meantime, Ian and Ian were the last to arrive and they enjoyed the additional challenge of the walk into the hut in darkness, aided of course by their head torches. Apparently crossing the wire bridge in darkness adds a bit of extra insecurity to the traverse.
Well into the evening, a couple of head torches were spotted in the distance, east of the hut. At first it was difficult to tell whether their bearers were south or north of the Water of Nevis. Eventually it became clear that the walkers were south of the river and we guessed (correctly, it transpired) that the two guys who had headed upstream hours earlier had been unsuccessful in finding a place to cross the main river and had retraced their steps west. Fortunately, the water levels had reduced marginally and, this time round they were able to negotiate the Allt Coire a Mhail albeit with some difficulty.
It transpired that they were a couple of young lads from the Lake District who were up in the area on a camping/walking trip. They were very well equipped but, as we have all done before, they hadn’t anticipated how quickly the rainfall would produce spate conditions. They were more than happy to accept our invitation to come into the hut for a bit of a heat, a hot drink and some chocolate.
Their vehicle was parked a few kilometres further down Glen Nevis and they gratefully accepted George’s offer to let them borrow his car from the top car park – anxious as they were to make contact with their girlfriends to assure them they were safe and well (albeit sodden and knackered).
Weather conditions on the Saturday morning had abated slightly but Norrie had already decided he wasn’t heading high that weekend and opted for a cross country trek up Glen Nevis, across the watershed and down to the remote Meanach bothy. Ian Pollock offered to keep him company. James, Ian Millar and Gerry had their sights set on the most westerly of the Grey Corries, Sgurr Choinnich Mor with a possible extension up onto Aonach Beag if conditions stayed favourable.
The five set off together east along the initially fine path and after about three kilometres, the mountaineers and the bothy baggers parted company.
Close to the watershed, the path deteriorated and Norrie and Ian hopped, sloshed and skited their way eastwards towards the bothy, their trip involving a few interesting burn crossings as well. Eventually they made it down to the wonderfully remote bothy where boots were removed, a fire-log lit and a welcome cup of coffee/soup and a roll enjoyed. Any smugness at reaching the bothy was quickly dissipated when a couple of hard-core fell runners came into the bothy for a quick change in the middle of an epic run round the Loch Treig Munros.
A bit more rain had fallen and on the long return to the hut any attempt to cross the burns dry shod was abandoned and the 45 Degrees tank squadron duly propelled themselves by route one back to Steall.
In the meantime, James, Ian and Gerry had set off up the uniformly steep grassy slopes on the south side of the Grey Corries. Decent progress was made and amidst the generally poor conditions they were periodically rewarded with some breaks in the weather which afforded them some fine views – and more importantly avoided the potentially animated discussion on navigation!
With the summit successfully attained, any thoughts of heading on to Aonach Beag had been dismissed and a retreat south west took them safely on the path back to the hut.
George had hatched a cunning plan for himself and Susan that day. They were going to cross the Allt Coire a Mhail below the An Steall waterfall and climb the steep path up onto An Gearanach. From there conditions would dictate whether they carried further round the Ring of Steall or return from that summit to the hut.
We all know what can happen to the best laid schemes of mice of men. Their promised joy turned not to grief and pain but to submersion and saturation. A mere 200 yards into their walk, George’s attempt to cross the slippery rocks and fast flowing burn immediately went totally aft agley as he lost his footing and plunged into the foaming torrent. Drenched from toe to chin, there was no alternative but to squelch uneasily back to the hut and ditch their planned walk.
George’s revised plan was then to walk down the glen, retrieve his car from where the two lads had left it the previous night, change into some dry clothes, head into Fort William to watch the Scotland rugby match on TV and enjoy a beer. Did I already mention the best laid schemes of mice and men?
Raymond had decided not to do the hills that day, but to go for a run. He had arranged to borrow James’ car and drive down to the Glen Nevis visitors centre, run up the Water of Nevil to Polldubh and return via the West Highland Way. Of course, being a considerate soul he stopped where George’s car was parked and picked up the keys as a favour.
When George got there and realised his keys were missing, with all his money etc locked inside, it was time for some serious head scratching. His blagging skills though are legendary and he managed to persuade someone to give him a lift – firstly, back up the road to recover Susan who was by this time retreating back to the hut in desperation.
By this stage, Raymond had already given James’ car keys to George having almost run into him as he stood in the middle of road waving a “Caution Cyclists” sign above his head! George and Susan were then able to pick up James’ car from the visitors centre where their Samaritan dropped them off, drive back to the top car park for their own car and deposit James’ car back at the visitors centre for Raymond.
The Marx Brothers plot ended with them all sitting in a Fort William pub, beer in hand and watching the rugby on TV. Even non-hillwalking days are eventful with the 45 Degrees Mountaineering Club!
That evening, with the generator still out of commission, and no musical instruments having been lugged into the hut there was an opportunity for some lively discussion around the gas fire and the flickering candles. The subject matter somehow progressed from effluent disposal to ghostly sightings and hallucinatory experiences as the evening wore on. Norrie, who was having one of his dry months swore that he would be back on the sauce at the next meet as the hilarity soared over his head.
The macabre otherworldliness of the situation was finally confirmed though as the Steall Diablo finally announced his satanic presence – even though to the sober and the cynical it was only the candle light illuminating the remnants of James’ glass of red wine.
A tidy up on Sunday morning and a final crossing of the wire bridge saw everyone back at their vehicles and heading for home – although George and Susan did stop off in Glen Spean on the way back and enjoyed and wander up to the trig point on Cruim Leacainn.
Hopefully, more will be accomplished on future meets when the weather will perhaps be kinder, but there were still a few enjoyable memories to take back from this one.
Future visitors to the Ring of Steall may however see that a new sign that has been erected just below the An Steall waterfall – Leum Uilleim.