Loch Hourn to Plockton
This week is kindly sponsored by Marian and Dick Keall
(Marian is my godmother)
It was an early start but with a steaming mug of tea I could doze groggy and tired from a weekend of adventure in the front seat, Paul drove me back to Loch Hourn. After a brief coffee stop in Glenelg we arrived back to Arnisdale.
It was overcast and curtains of rain draped across the loch, I was pleased not to have to squeeze into the kayak just yet. First I had a munro to climb.
With a last hug Paul sped off along the road to go to work, once again I was alone…well almost. As I set my pack an elderly gentleman doddered out of a small cottage nearby, with a creak the peeling paint of his red door flaked onto the step like snowflakes. Brushing it aside he held out his hand. Perplexed I watched in amazement as a large raven soared from a nearby telegraph pole and landed on his fore arm. After feeding his incredible pet he wandered toward me.
In a thick lilting west coast accent he grumbled “what’s your business kiddo?” Pointing to the top of the hill I nodded to my pack, he smiled “ahh its a goodun, my bird nests up there” he gestured toward the raven on the telegraph pole. I noticed the man was missing a large bite sized chunk from his left ear and wondered if his faithful raven was to blame, I didn’t ask. With a strong handshake he tottered back into the old cottage. It would seem the locals here are as weather sculpted and hardened as the landscape itself.
Boots tied, pack on I ventured upward from the road. It was mountain time!
BEINN SQRITHEALL 6.81km +/- 1112m
Recommended Naismith 3h 13m, Actual Time 3h 35m
Winding upward from the coast it was good to be moving faster than the midges, the trail wound behind the elderly mans cottage and begun to track along a stream. Wind beaten birch trees lined the gurgling brook and the air was filled with the scent of bog myrtle, seaweed and the gentle chirps of a wren.
The ascent of Beinn Sgritheall (Ben Scree-al) was straight up and down, steep and short would make reaching the summit relatively fast. As the track moved across bog and heather I slowly trudged upward, my legs were still stiff from the weekends antics and looking up to a cloudy summit I didn’t find much inspiration. It was better than the other option however, the wind was fast picking up and below I could see cats paws and spin-drifts blow across the loch, not something I fancied paddling through.
As I reached the col above Arnisdale I took a brief break to enjoy a chocolate bar kindly sent by the Keall family as a moral boost…it certainly did the trick.
Thanks to the Keall family for the chocolate bars!
Ascending upward onto steep loose scree slopes I found that I was already satisfyingly high up the face. To my surprise I was hiking in relative shelter, the wind below seemed to be deflecting away from the ridge as it hit the steep face of the hillside. For a brief second the cloud parted, looking north the incredible mountains of Kintail poked between dark brooding clouds, it was more than enough motivation to keep climbing. Perhaps, just perhaps I would get a view!
A break in the cloud shows some views to the North
Or perhaps not. The mist returned and once again I was in the tranquil darkness of the cloud. The gradient of the terrain started to ease and scree became grass, I was nearing the ridge line. Through the mist I could hear wind buffeting upward from the face to my south, it made an eerie atmosphere as I walked along the ridge.
It was 11am when I reached the summit, still in cloud I sheltered behind a small cairn to eat a quick oat cake lunch. The trig-point on the summit had obviously seen better times, cleaved in two and uprooted I can only conclude somebody didn’t like it there. It would take one incredible wind to lift the weighty block of concrete to its new resting place.
To my surprise the cloud unexpectedly parted! Suddenly granted with a tremendous view of Kintail to the north and the entire length of Loch Hourn to the south I looked down in wonder. The cliff face below was far steeper than I had assumed from the sea. Looking onward to the end of loch Hourn just 6km away I was relieved to see the wind had eased a little, with any luck I could paddle there tonight and enjoy the luxury of my first night in a Scottish bothy.
A small group of ramblers from England appeared from the other end of the ridge, tired but cheery they asked if it was possible to get off from where I had come. As it turned out they had scrambled and dragged themselves through a thick woodland, bushes and heather all the way up. It seemed a pretty unappealing option. Leaving them at the summit for lunch I decided to return the way I had come.
I jogged most of the way down in an effort to reduce the time in the mist. It was relieving when once more I was out of the cloud, low down and back on trail I watched as chance glimpses of sunlight shone golden rays out over the loch.
Passing the old cottage I watched as the ravens took flight, the old man was nowhere to be seen. Eager to return to the kayak hidden in the trees a few kilometres along the road I didn’t spend long in the quiet collection of homes at Arnisdale. With a scrape and a bump I slid down the scree into the woods, to my relief the kayak was exactly how I had left it.
In just over an hour I had packed the remaining kit back into the kayak and changed into the paddling clothes. With a heave and a grunt I rolled the boat down the large boulders toward the shore. As the fender rolled past the stern of the boat it would slide with a grinding crunch onto the stone. Returning the fender to the bow I then towed it again the next few meters.
The wind was blowing onshore and was again picking up, I would paddle straight for the far side and hug the shelter of the shore. Cramming back into the boat with a familiar squeeze I pushed myself from the shore. The water was cold, and after only a few days my paddling felt different. I was wobbly, the boat unstable. It felt as if at any moment one of the small waves would flip me over, “What happened!” I thought with a panic! Had I forgotten how to paddle?
100m past, it didn’t improve and I was starting to worry. Turning back to shore I landed with a scrape onto a small rocky bay. To my huge relief I realised what was different. My deck bag tied to the stern had slid along the kayak to be perched on the tip of the boat. Heavy and laden it had changed my centre of gravity on the water making the boat un-stabe. A quick fix later and to my huge relief I was paddling well again.
With huge splashes I broke through the short but steep fetch gusting across the loch, just 1km from shelter I paddled as hard as I could.
Approaching the far shore the fetch had become taller and rolling, each wave cascaded over the bow before blasting skywards with a dull thud as they hit the bag on the fore deck. Spin-drifts had started the buffet over the water as they deflected downward from the mountains.
Each whirl-wind of mist which roared across my path I had to stop paddling, put my blade in the water and duck my head low to the water. Even lifting the blade a little upward made the boat almost flip with the ferocious gusts. Thankfully they came and past quickly and despite their fury the sun had come out. Ahead Barrisdale bay shone golden in the sun under a tremendous rainbow.
After half an hour I reached the far shore. Sheltered and calm I paddled quickly a further 5km to the bay.
Spot the kayak in Barrisdale bay
As I arrived I begun to drag and paddle the kayak up Barrisdale bay by following a large river flowing through the shallow sands. About 200m upstream I landed and dragged the kayak into the grass. They bay was sheltered and the midges veracious! I noticed two young men wandering toward me as I unpacked. With a laden bag I started to walk toward the bothy in their general direction.
“HELLO!! I am Simon and this is Kai” one of the young chaps exclaimed excitedly in a thick german accent. “Can we help?” Delighted I gladly accepted. They were hiking in Knoydart and had taken interest in the kayak as they took their evening walk. It was fantastic to have assistance in carrying my heavy bag of kit the 1km from the boat to the bothy.
I had expected to be alone but already had made two friends and found a further 5 camped around the bothy. For just £3 a night the bothy seemed a far better option than another nights camping, besides it had started to rain.
I have over time developed my own rating system for bothies,
One Star * provides basic shelter.
Two Star ** provides basic shelter and has nearby water
Three Star *** has all of the above AND is rain, wind and midge tight walls.
Four Star **** All of the above and a fire
Five star ***** All of the above plus amusement e.g books, funny graffiti, mice to catch or great company
Barrisdale bothy made it to three stars as alas no fire. On the plus side there was fantastic company and over dinner I enjoyed a social evening. With a room all to myself I spread out on the wooden bunk beds, drying my already wet kit it felt like the bothy was a halfway house between the comfort of home and the camping lifestyle once more.
A loud batter of rain splashed outside the window in the morning, grunting and turning over it was difficult to get out of bed. The bothy was freezing cold and I could see my breath. All was silent. Gazing out to the mountains they were entirely shrouded in cloud, entirely uninspired I hoped it might improve later in the day. By 11am I admitted defeat, donned waterproofs and with a creek of the blue bothy door ventured outside into the driving rain.
LUINNE BHEINN & MEALL BHUIDE 17.1km +/- 1607m
Recommended Naithsmiths 6h 6m , 8h 10m
Hood up and head down I squelched upward along the track to Inverie to reach the pass between loch Hourn and Nevis. It took an hour to reach the top, wet and cold every fibre of my being wanted to return to the bothy. A constant patter of rain splashed over my cheeks but on the plus side my RAB waterproofs were so far keeping me perfectly dry despite the downpour. With original aim to summit Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buide and Ladhar Bheinn all in one day I soon changed plans. Looking up to the three peaks I realised it would be a tremendously long day to complete them all, it simply didn’t have the reserve energy. I found this instantly disheartening, I kept thinking “What if its like this every day when i’m climbing munro’s” although I knew deep down it of course would be better.
Alone on the hill I hummed to myself and kept plodding upward. In deep mud my feet were squelching both inside and outside of my boots, following a fence line up toward the summit I continued to wind past endless false summits.
My muscles were burning, panting for breath and exhausted I was barely 2 thirds up the first summit. Meall Buide seemed a long walk from the top. I could recognise that this was a “low day’ and I took some solace to think it was only the second one I had really suffered on the entire expedition. Looking up the glistening cliffs behind the rain I could see the first summit.
Stopping behind a large boulder to quickly throw on another warm layer there was suddenly a loud “AHAH!!”behind me. I thought I was alone and wheeling round was suddenly confronted with the smiling cheer of Simon and Kai. Their cheer instantly boosted my mood and for the last 100m to the peak I travelled in much better stead.
Simon and Kai the German backpackers
As we rounded the crest of the hill an apparent confusion suddenly arose. There were three peaks, all of which seemed to be taller than the other. It was time to check the map. Confident the middle peak was in fact the highest we sat and had lunch in its shelter. Just to be sure I returned to the wind and rain for a brief 10 minutes to jog to the other summits…just in case.
Leaving Luinne Bheinn I was tempted to return to the track with the two germans and head back to the bothy. It would pay to get the other summit climbed, after all I was confident it would be nicer today in the rain than 3 days ride and a climb in the winter later this year.
Descending from the peak I skirted past lochans and bog in the rain, trying to avoid going knee deep in sphagnum I skirted the tops of cliffs toward the col. To my surprise reaching the summit of Meall Buide took far less time than I had expected, perhaps the rain made it seem more distant.
Quickly touching the summit I enjoyed a brief glance around at the view and turned back toward the bothy. Warm dry clothes and my sleeping bag were calling.
Chasing red deer from below the peak I dropped directly off the summit to a lower ledge, crunched though a small patch of remnant snow and plodded back toward the track. An hour later I arrived, a highway descent back to the bothy awaited and to my delight the sun had arrived!
Finally back in the warm and dry I was this time surprised to be alone in the bothy. A group of four were instead camping in the rain for the cheaper £1 a night rather than £3 a night. A quick and colossal meal of dried spag bol later I collapsed into the bunk and was out like a light.
LADHAR BHEINN 13.3km +/-1428m
Recommended Naithsmiths 5h 2m, 6h 30m
Three of the Knoydart hills down, one to go! Again I looked out at a rainy morning, to my delight the sun arrived as I finished breakfast alone in the echoey bothy. The peaks were capped in thick cloud but I was happy to be outside. It was a new day and I was in a far better mood.
With a refreshed spring in my step I left the bothy and jogged through a thick cloud of midges waiting outside. I headed west along the valley floor toward the bay, a narrow track lead the way toward the summit.
Climbing through deep bracken I watched as wading birds flocked and fluttered across the sandy bay nearby. Robins chirped and blackbirds darted across the path, the entire valley was filled with life.
Rounding the corner I emerged into a small valley and followed the Allt Coire Dhorrcail river upward toward the corries of Ladhar Bheinn above. From the cloud peeked tremendous cliffs and towering spires of rock. Looking east to the ridge upward I was nervous to climb the steep face of one of the rises. 100m of challenging scrambling between rock and large stretches of wet grass, all above cliffs. Because of the wet grass and to play it safe I instead continued upward aiming for a shallower corrie.
The corrie was steep, the damp grass tricky underfoot. Climbing and scrambling upward away from the sun and into the mist I was panting hard. It was steeper than it looked but I could make it.
All around my feet frogs leapt from ledges and cracks, they seemed to relish the mist which swallowed the mountain.
Tired and sweating I finally scrambled from grass to scree, I was on the ridge. A clear trail could be seen winding snake like through the rocks and alpine plants before fading into cloud. Following upward I scrambled up steep crags and over windswept plateaus. To my north ominous cliffs plunged into a shrouded abyss, with no way to tell if they were 100m or 500m high I passed by in caution.
Navigating around steep cliffs on ascent (Film Screenshot)
False summit after false summit seemed to pass, after about 30 minutes hard hiking over the never ending stairway to heaven I decided to navigate by map and compass. To my delight I was only 100m from the summit itself.
Despite the cloud there was little wind, a familiar eerie silence swallowed the mountainside. Every sound from the creak of my rucksack to crunch of stone underfoot seemed magnified around me. I could see the summit cairn, I was almost there.
Navigating to find the summit (Film Screenshot)
A small cairn piled precariously on the crest of the ridge marked the unassuming peak of the mountain. As had been with Luinne Bheinn the day before I found myself convinced there was more to go. The narrow but almost level ridge seemed to be ascending. I followed onward a little further to arrive at an old concrete trig point. Torn in two with a large pointed rock jammed in its centre the trig had seen better days, for I it was a relief to know I had definitely passed the summit.
Having not left until early afternoon it was already growing late. Cold and dampened by the mist I waited only briefly to re-set the compass from the summit. Turning back I started to hike on a bearing and pace my route onward. Aiming for the western spur I would leave the steep cliff faces of the ridge and head down a new route to the shore.
To my relief it was relatively easy to locate despite the rain. The ridge narrowed and became steeper at each side, tip toeing along the narrow trail I looked out to each side. Nothing but air and an ominous sense of impending doom filled the void below.
Descending from the cloud base slowly and carefully I watched in delight as the mist begun to steadily clear from around the summit of Stob a choire odhair. To my relief it was close and looked easy to summit, I could relax at last.
Descending from the mist my legs were stiff but the terrain was good. Before long I was back in the realm of mountain frogs and the evening chirps of bird calls once more.
Late into the evening I arrived back into the bothy, I was alone. Collapsing into bed with a mug of tea it didn’t take long to fall asleep.
It was the night before paddling and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse! but with a clunk and a rattle the wind started to roar, behind creaks in the rafters rain knocked at the door. Alone in my bed wrapped cosy and dry, I closed my eyes to wish for the bad weather to die.
Alas there were no rays of morning sun to creep across the cobwebbed windows of the bothy, as I emerged from my sleeping bag I landed with a squelch into a large puddle. Apparently the windows leaked.
Outside the wind was howling down the loch, far stronger than forecast it was clearly funnelling between the mountains. The prospect of a cold wet paddle to skye seemed like torture. Even the herd of deer grazing just outside seemed miserable. With a hint of optimism I convinced myself the sky was growing slowly lighter. Perhaps the wind would lighten and I could leave later in the day.
Playing on my mind I knew that within the week I had to make it to Stirling to graduate. In a few days I would meet my father on his yacht and leave the kayak. Upon my return I would have to make a difficult choice, to paddle around Skye or take the inside passage.
My heart wanted to paddle around the outside as planned, there was however a complication. A friend from Australia would be joining me, she was a complete beginner at kayaking. With this in mind I knew the safest option was to travel inside. Thankfully I would have a day or two to think about my choices.
In the mean time I finished off the last of a pack of bacon and a whole pack of eggs left in the bothy by a long gone hiker. In the silence of the empty bothy I sat down alone to read the guest book. I think the winning entry has to have been:
“We are aliens, congratulations you are the lucky ones…for years we have been infiltrating society through the medium of wifi and mobile phones. You will notice that there is absolutely no reception here, this is no coincidence, you have been saved…to all of you who remain here it is your responsibility to rebuild society as you see fit….thank you”
With a quick glance to the tap wondering exactly what was in the water I then looked around…it was just me and some deer…sorry humanity.
By 4pm I was starting to suffer with boredom. It was still pouring outside and no company had arrived. I had read the guest book cover to cover and built an 8 card high stack of cards on the table, now what?
Suddenly as if the heavens simply turned off the rain stopped. The wind too seemed to drop with it and with a tremendous glow the sun prevailed. 4.30pm, I had to make it out of Loch Hourn soon.
With the option of a lonely night I made the call to set out for the sea. Grabbing my kit I hauled my dry bags back to the kayak. Without the help of Kai and Simon it took a lot longer and much more effort to travel the 1km along the valley.
To my delight the sun was now shining brightly and the sea was now glass calm. Packing the kayak I now felt quite exited to be moving once more.
With a stroke of luck the tide was high, instead of a 200m drag down shallow river banks there was just 5m between the sea and I. With a heave and a shove I launched straight from the steep grassy bank and silently paddled out into the sound.
As I passed over the bay the ends of my blades scraped the sand under the shallow water. It felt strange to be paddling across familiar ground. Passing the small islands of Corr Eileanan I coasted along the northern shores with ease, the evening had become magically tranquil.
The sun wasn’t to last long, a wall of grey was sweeping in from the west. As I raced a small fishing boat across Arnisdale bay the rain returned.
With hood up and head down I continued to paddle through the evening. As I rounded the end of Loch Hourn I briefly landed on a small island.
Scrambling through thick vegetation to the summit I checked the forecast. Force 7-8 gales would develop overnight from the north west. Checking my watch it was already 8pm, looking at the maps I had another hour to reach Sandaig point. With luck I would find a sheltered camp to weather the storm.
Late landing for a quick stretch at 8pm
Heavy rain drops danced on the calm sea, I had started to shiver so paddled harder hugging the shore to keep sheltered. Whisps of mist clung to tall pine trees which towered over gnarled wind sculpted crags at the shore. Green ferns draped over the dark wet stone splashed a dash of colour into the driech view, beneath the sea deep brown fronds of kelp laced between sea urchins and starfish gently ripped beneath the sea.
I was getting colder, no matter how hard I paddled I was soaking wet and needed to make camp soon. After what seemed an age I rounded a small peninsula and with relief paddled upon a wide sandy bay.
I landed at the eastern end of the shore, hopping from the boat I sunk to my knees in thick sand. It held fast and clung to the boat, panicking slightly I gripped the kayak and swung back into the cockpit. The last thing I wanted was to become stuck dragging the boat through soft sand.
Instead I landed on the shingle shore of a small tidal island. Just 15 minutes from shore I could see a grassy haven nestled beneath some birch trees, sanctuary at once. 10 minutes of heaving the kayak up the beach on the fender later and I started to set tent as fast as I could.
It took just 15 minutes between emptying the boat to peeling out of wet clothes into a dry sleeping bag, at last the shivering started to stop. Tying down everything loose in preparation for the wind I cooked a full litre of food and a colossal mug of hot chocolate. Just as I was heading to bed my phone rang…it was Paul.
Behind a crackled reception he explained he was heading my way, by tomorrow evening he would sail to my position and meet me before graduation. Four days early we would sail to the Cullins to allow me to summit some of the mountains before returning back to Sandaig point so I could kayak to Plockton.
The thought of familiar company and a comfortable boat to sleep in the next night filled me with excitement. It was a fantastic moral boost as I listened to the heavy rain battering the tent overnight.
Morning arrived with a roar of wind and ferocious flapping of fabric. The gales had arrived. Peaking my head out of the door a flurry of water instantly soaked my face, the sea was capped in white in a large swell. Frantically closing the door I returned to my sleeping bag and turned on the radio…today I was going nowhere.
Safe in the knowledge that later in the day I might be met by my father and good friend Beth I relaxed most of the day in the sanctuary of shelter. Drinking litre upon litre of tea and catching up on calories care of numerous dried meals I relaxed to radio 4.
By late evening I was desperately needing to escape to “Relieve” the many cups of tea. With a stroke of luck the rain eased off and taking my chance I emerged back into the world. Wind blustered around the bay which was now walkable to from my island. Taking the opportunity to stretch my legs I wandered across the headland to look for Paul in the yacht, there was no sign. I could see the sound of Kyle Rhea ahead, with time alone in the tent I had finally come to a decision, I would paddle through the inside sound of Skye.
To occupy the evening I spent several hours wandering the bay and only returned to the tent once laden with a bag of freshly picked mussels from the rocks. As I sat in the porch scraping barnacles from their shells a crackled voice spluttered through the VHF. “Kayak Sula, Kayak Sula this is Mollymawk, over” It was Paul!
Wandering to the point I could see them bouncing along the sound through the waves and tide of the Kyle Rhea tide race, they would arrive within the hour. Suddenly all action stations were go, I abandoned the mussels and started to hurriedly pack my gear back into dry bags. Stuffing kit here there and everywhere I collapsed the tent in the wind, tonight I would sleep on a boat!
I could see a mast drifting past the islands and with all the gear packed sought shelter amongst the rocks. There was a faint sense of being rescued from a desert island as they arrived. Shining my head-torch toward them the bay was suddenly filled with the clanks of anchor chain, company had officially arrived!
10 minutes later Paul and Beth arrived in a small inflatable dinghy. After a round of hugs we loaded the boat with gear and paddled back to the yacht with the kayak under tow. Almost immediately I was handed a dram procured from “the cupboard of sin and fresh veg.” Wrapped up in the warmth of the boat it felt strange to so suddenly comfortable. Gently bobbing in the shelter of the bay we were rocked in our bunks as the three of us discussed plans for the next day over wind whistling through clinking halliards.
Eventually a plan was formed, at 5am Paul would start to sail across the Sound of Sleat, we would aim for Loch Slappin and I would land to summit the first of the Cullins, Blà Bheinn (Blaven). Already a little tipsy from the single shot of whiskey and with a plan formed I crashed out to the rock of the boat.
* * *
A loud chugging noise and deafening clatter of chain woke me with a start, sitting bolt upright with alarm I slammed my head into the shelf above my bunk. Nursing an egg shaped lump on my forehead I realised we must be underway. Glancing from the small salt stained cabin window I watch as Sandaig point shrunk away behind us, it was crystal clear and a perfectly calm sea.
The idea of sunshine and the possibility of a view from the top was the third best realisation of the morning, the first was the knowledge I didn’t need to get out of bed quite yet and the second was that bacon awaited. All round it promised to be a good day.
Beth appeared from the forward bunk with a beaming smile, “Morning!!” she exclaimed with every hint of optimism. Disappearing out on deck Paul returned to the cabin with far more energy than should be allowed at 5am. Still tired I dozed for a while longer as we motored on.
As we approached the coast of Skye with the assistance of a large steaming mug of coffee I crawled up on deck. After all, if I wasn’t paddling around I would at least enjoy the view from the boat. As we left the sound of Sleat and begun sailing along the west coast of Skye I watched intently at the incredible coastline, giant cracks and caves lined cliffs on the shore with colourful heather painting the landscape above. The boat now riding through a tidal current against the breeze bounced and rolled in the sea, below deck Beth prepared bacon and eggs as Paul helmed.
By 9am we had arrived into Loch Slappin. Ahead the rounded red cullins rolled over the horizon, it was perfectly sheltered and glass calm all the way down the loch. Under motor it took little time to reach the head of the loch and drop anchor close to the shore.
Beth and Paul looking up to the mountains
Once anchored I was rowed to the shore, my pack was light and I felt filled with a bacon and coffee fuelled energy. Left alone on shore Beth and Paul stayed on the boat to relax and read in the sun, it was my job to hike up to the summit of Bla Bheinn and return as quick as I could comfortably do so.
BLABHEINN MAP 9.15km +/-1003m
Naithsmiths 3h 30m, 3h 40m
In the cool morning I quickly walked along the single track road and onto the trail to the mountain. Setting it as a personal goal to summit as quickly as possible I jogged with walking poles along the wide and well constructed route. Through a beautiful mixed woodland I followed up a gurgling brook, passing numerous other hikers I felt spurred on to keep going.
Crossing the stream with a hop I marched onto steep scree. The terrain steepened and my pace slowed, still puffing and pushing hard I moved as hard as I could force my legs to go. Within 30 minutes I had made the col below the steep ascent to the summit. Stopping for a brief drink from a cold spring I met a young lad doing his dissertation field-work…not a bad site location! He was studying geology and had been commissioned by the Oil industry from Aberdeen University, I reminded myself a dissertation always sounds more interesting than the one you did yourself.
Leaving the lad to return to work I carried on upward, from here the terrain grew steeper and more of a scramble. It helped to occupy my mind as I ascended. Far below Mollymawk bobbed calmly in the sea, it was funny to think while I was sweating and panting both Beth and Paul were enjoying a tea and a read in the sun.
Scrambling up Blaven (Film clip)
The terrain grew steeper still, the rough Gabro stuck like glue beneath my boots making ascent easy along the large slabs. I could see the cloud descending on the summit above, hopefully it wouldn’t last long!
Slabs turned to scree once more and for every two steps up I slid one step down. For 50m I weaved back and forth through the loose stone, it cascaded around my ankles and rolled below with a clatter. At last I was close to the ridge.
Colossal black cliffs reared up from the west, the distant ridge stood imposing and razor sharp over the valley below. An overwhelming relief I had not tried to summit that way washed over me. The route I was on was very easy in comparison.
There was only 100m to go, with the VHF I radioed Mollymawk below. Paul responded cheerily but neither he or Beth could spot me, instead I would try again from the summit. As I moved onward the cloud descended around me.
Disappointed to have lost a view before getting the chance to see the Black Cullins to the west I slowed on my ascent. Hopping between crags and scree I plodded upward, the trail had widened and become clearer as the summit became close.
An hour and 45 minutes since landing on the shore I arrived at the summit. As I stopped to grab a bite to eat the cloud lifted to my delight. This time over the VHF I managed to wave down to the distant boat below, Paul and Beth could see me through the binoculars.
To the west the effort instantly became rewarded, the most spectacular vista of mountains and lochs dominated the view. On the horizon the Black Cullins lay in wait, tomorrow I would set foot on them for the summits.
A few oat cakes and cheese later I headed off to the second peak to the south, it was close by and after a small but exposed scramble I had finished all the ascent for the day. Now all that was left was to return to the boat.
It was a long scree slope down, with the walking poles in hand I descended the loose ground in a ski style scree run. Hopping from stone to stone, from turn to turn I rapidly lost altitude. In just 10 minutes I was back at the col. Stopping to remove a small quarry of stone from my shoe I appeased my inner child by climbing a large boulder sitting in the middle of the valley.
I returned to a jog on the way back down, stopping only once more to sip at a stream near the forest. I had made it up and down in what felt like a fast time and more to the point I had thoroughly enjoyed the day out. Reaching the car park I returned to a walk and almost immediately with a lurch slipped on a wet branch in the woods. Rolling sharply over my ankle I fell to my knees with a painful thud, it started throbbing violently. Hobbling forwards I prayed that it wouldn’t be a bad strain, it was painful and weakened but didn’t feel too bad.
By the time I reached the shore it had started to feel manageable, with relief I could definitely still walk on it. I swore to be more careful in future, a twisted ankle could spell disaster for the trip ahead.
* * *
Back on Mollymawk Paul procured a cup of tea and Beth produced two buckets, one filled with hot the other cold water I dipped my swollen ankle in and out to try and prevent it stiffening. It seemed to work. We waited on the anchor with hope that Paul’s friend’s Ewan and Andrea Gillespie would arrive for a quick cuppa. Ewan is the author of arguably one of the finest publications on Scottish kayaking “Hebridean Waves: Kayaking Scotland’s West Coast” I was eager and exited to get to talk to such a keen and well respected paddler.
Sure enough after an hour in the sun they arrived on shore. A short row later and we were all aboard Mollymawk with steaming brews in hand. A few rogue tins of McEwans Red beer also migrated on deck from the depths of the bilges.
Sharing paddling stories Ewan who had worked as a kayak guide in Patagonia told me of a tale which from now on I will use as a marker on just how tough it can really get. One hardy soul had once tried to paddle to Cape Horn alone, each morning he had to soak his wetsuit in the sea to melt the ice enough to get it on…brrr! And I thought May in Scotland had been cold!
We arranged to meet the following night in Glen Brittle where I exited some of the Cullins, we would return to Broadford and meet Paul in the boat once more. Everything seemed to be fitting together nicely from the complicated plan puzzle.
By 6pm Ewan and Andrea had returned to shore and waved goodbye, we were once again under sail. Setting course to Loch Coruisk for the night we left Loch Slappin, far above Blabheinn dominated the skyline with jagged peaks and steep slopes. Passing under a mackrel sky lit by the evening sun we motor sailed into the sheltered haven.
With sudden delight Paul suddenly pointed and shouted “WHALE AHEAD!” Beth and I scrambled on deck from below to peer outward excitedly. Sure enough about 200m ahead of the bow a small polished arc crested out of the water seemingly without so much as a ripple. At first I thought it had to be a pilot whale due to its size, Paul insisted it was a baby Minke whale.
Again with a splash this time the back reared from the water and descended silently into the depths, this time there was no mistake…Paul was right, it was a Minke.
As suddenly as it had arrived the whale dissapeared back into the cold depths of the ocean leaving only a few gannets diving in its wake as sign it was there at all. We entering Loch Coruisk itself, glacially rounded rocks formed perfectly smooth islands, dotted with tens of seals the tranquility was broken as they took fright to the sea with a splash.
Escorted into the bay by many curiously bobbing heads we joined two other yachts. With a loud clank of anchor chain which echoed around the steep Gabro walls above we were set for the night. An hour later after a colossal curry dinner and several cups of tea we decided to use the last of the evening to take a quick wander on shore.
I was particularly keen to walk the length of Britain’s shortest river. The river Scavaig runs just 250 yards from Loch Coruisk to the sea. I had already heard about the short stretch of water after attempting to use it for a University coursework assignment (pick a river and measure its course in 100m intervals), the lecturer decidedly revoked my choice.
Ambling up the track past the surprisingly wide river for its length Beth and I scrambled up the grippy face of a Gabro slope. Igneous in formation Gabro can only be described as natures best answer to sandpaper, by the top of the slope my fingers were abraded and sore.
Looking down on the bay I enjoyed watching the three boats gently spinning on their moorings, far above the summit of Sgurr nan Eag, my first black Cullin awaited.
* * *
Another early start rung into life with the clink of anchor chain. We were once more under sail. Still headed west we travelled a few kilometres west of Loch Coruisk looking for a suitable bay to abandon me on. Paul and Beth were going to sail to Rum, I would start hiking the Cullins.
After an hour a perfect inlet appeared between the cliffs and caves. Small and stony the bay was dominated by a huge waterfall which cascaded behind thick birch forest onto the rounded boulders below. As Paul slowly nosed the boat forward Beth and I sat at the bow keeping an eye out for rocks.
Looking to the shore two colossal birds suddenly took flight from the branches of a dead tree, just 100m ahead they were unmistakably Sea Eagles. Watching the majestic birds glide seemingly effortlessly despite their size I was spurred into a great mood, today would be a good day!
Paul stayed to keep an eye on the boat while Beth rowed me into the shore. More of a sailer than a contender in the next oxford cambridge race we laughed as the boat approached the shore more sideways than forwards. With a soft crunch we beached, I hopped from the bow and pushed Beth back toward the yacht. The small surf nearly caught my boots but thankfully missed.
I was abandoned, a cast away on the Isle of Skye. I took a few minutes to watch Paul and Beth sailing off around the headland, I was now totally alone. Looking around I could see most of the bay was surrounded in cliff, between a thick glade of ferns a narrow ledge wound upward to escape.
Hopping over beautiful boulders of Red and silvery grey I past the waterfall and scrambled up the muddy slope. Clinging to roots and branches I had to hook my foot high to heave myself over a slippery algae covered slab. Covered in mud and panting I emerged from my bay to the moors.
SCURR NAN EAG-SCURR DUBH MOR & SCURR ALASDAIR 9.34km +/-1390m
Recommended Naithsmiths: 4h 11m, Actual time 14 hours ** (Exceptional circumstance)
Only the faint sound of the waterfall below broke the silence, it was a perfectly calm morning and the sun was shining. All I had to do was follow the river I had just climbed alongside to reach the Spur. With a slight pang of disappoint I watched as cloud swallowed the summit. “Oh well! At least its sunny now!”
Pushing through heather and grass I watched as hundreds of moths, butterflies and dragonflies flitted across the plains, Skye was absolutely teeming with vibrant life.
Ascending from the river I joined onto a Spur which steep and covering in scree lead directly to the summit. All I had to do was make sure I headed left if ever I got lost, to the right steep cliffs plummeted downward. It was humid and hot, hiking upward I was almost glad to reach the cool cloud base. A sheep above me knocked a scatter of sharp stones from a ledge, clacking and bouncing past with a puff of rock dust I decided it was probably time to put on the helmet.
Ascending in the mist: Helmet on!
Head down and poles to the peat I pushed upward, loose stone and mud gradually changed to large slabs of grippy Gabro. Out of the mist above tall totems of rock lined the horizon line, each and every one convincingly looked like the summit cairn.
After about 15 false summits I was starting to despair, surely I would reach the top soon! The mist had started to cling to my clothes making them damp, I was getting cold. It was June and I was now wearing gloves! Occasionally as I wound to the right a bottomless abyss swum from the clouds, the cliffs seemed far more intimidating when the bottom was out of sight.
With the compass out and GPS on I finally approached a large cairn balanced on a small pinnacle of rock. The cairn seemed in the right place, the bearing was bang on…but the GPS said otherwise. Sure that this had to be the summit I wandered south along the ridge for 100m, it definitely descended.
Returning to the summit I phoned Paul to describe the summit in the Munro book, I wanted to be absolutely sure. Just as he picked up the phone a figure emerged from the mist ahead.
To my amazement it was “Big John” one of my instructors for Outdoor Education at Stirling University. A highly qualified guide John was leading two others who were on an intensive 6 month guiding course.
With a handshake and a laugh John explained he was doing to summit as far as the Inaccessible Pinnacle during the day. “Can I join?” I asked cheekily. They all agreed.
Delighted to not only with the prospect of summiting an extra few munros than planned but also with a highly skilled guide I followed the three down slope with a beaming smile. Already competent and qualified themselves Johns clients were here to learn more about the individual characteristic guiding points for the area than technique itself. With astounding knowledge of the routes John pointed out tips at every other boulder or slope “Watch this one it often has loose pebbles on it… I like to help with clients footwork here”.
Descending to the col between Scurr nan Eag and Scurr Dubh Mor the three climbers collected their rucksacks. The mist had begun to drift in and out, across the corrie Scurr Alasdair came into view, it looked impossibly steep from this angle and the prospect of climbing up it left a nervous lump in my throat.
Under Johns suggestion there was unanimous agreement to take a more interesting scramble route to the next peak, in normal circumstances a route which I would have been very nervous on. In Johns company however I felt entirely safe and at ease.
The col itself was filled with an interesting new geology. No longer were we in Gabro but in a very spiky and metallic boulder field. Although ranging from 1ft to 5ft in size the boulders were surprisingly loose, jagged and rough they made a metal/glass like clink whenever one moved. Cautious not to catch a boot I followed the others. We tracked below a recent rockslide and onto a large grippy slab.
From here it was an exposed scramble upward. As John took the time to explain the route and its characteristics to the two clients I followed behind listening intently to every word. It felt bizarrely akin to being back at University on a field course, I also felt that in this scenario I was definitely the least experienced and probably the perfect dummy client to practice on.
In company the vertigo seemed less, I felt confident and sure of my holds. With the guidance of John ahead it was only when I paused on flat ledges did I really appreciate quite how steep a slope we had ascended. I certainly would have been uncomfortable coming up this way on my own let alone navigating through the mist.
In just 30 minutes from the col we had reached the narrow summit of Scurr Dubh Mor. Quickly snapping a few photos we turned and headed back down. To summit five munro’s there was no time to hang around.
Descending from the peak at a fast pace the mist turned to a heavy rain. Throwing on jackets John directed me toward a luminous patch of moss to the west of the TD gap. To my relief we weren’t attempting the climb today, instead John was leading us to a small chimney to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair.
The patch of moss turned out to be a spring, a rarity on the notoriously dry Cullin range. Guzzling some water we continued upward. Aiming to a large line of cliffs we climbed through a scree slope before traversing west toward Sgurr Sgumain to follow the base of a small triangular rocky outcrop. “This is where a lot of people make a mistake” John announced, most go straight up from the corner of the outcrop and end up on a tricky step further atop the ridge. Instead we doubled back almost 180º to follow back along the top of the rocks. Ahead a narrow but well protected chimney led the way up the face.
It was a steep and very exposed scramble, one slip here would sent me falling a long way to certain injury. John solo’d up first, no more than 10m it seemed remarkably simple. Following next I clambered up into the crack. White knuckled and determined to cling to everything and anything I slowly scrambled upward, once inside the crack gave the fantastic illusion of security.
Only upon emerging from the top did the vertigo begin to kick a small buzz of adrenaline. We were now on Basalt which under the mist was slippery underfoot, each hold angled the wrong way and made each step tricky. Below just a few meters below where we traversed 100m of cliff face loomed through the cloud.
Skirting around the face we joined a small craggy spur, the terrain suddenly became less steep and imposing. To my surprise we were only 20m below the summit.
This was the second time I had stood on Sgurr Alasdair, the last was with my friend Remi, my Father and his friend Richard. It was winter last time and apart from the lack of the snow my second ascent had every bearing of familiarity. A clouded and cold summit with sloped ridges leading to a sense of impending falling. Once again we didn’t hang around. I stopped to take a few photos, the others begun to descend.
Teetering along the summit of Scurr Alasdair
Alone in the mist I was thankful to have been here before, I knew the way back to the crest of the “great stone chute” from memory. It did not take long to catch up, the others had stopped in the shelter of the col. To the north between a giant crack in the mountain the “great stone chute” descended into mist. A colossal scree slope it is the conventional ascent descent route to the mountain and offered the easiest route off.
There was a murmur of decision making, in the rain the prospect of the next two munros which were far more technical seemed very unappealing. After a while the choice to descent the chute prevailed.
I wasn’t disappointed to only achieve three of the five summits, after all the weather was dire. The saving grace was a brief view to the south which displayed a wonderful misty vista of the range we had hiked.
Standing in front of the range we had come along
It was 4pm, I radioed Ewan to let him know I would meet him in Glen Brittle in two hours.
Glad to be heading down to the warm and dry little did I know this was
just the start of a very long day.
Running down the scree I came across an abandoned walking pole in the loose stone. It was a strange find but a good bit of kit, I strapped it to the pack and carried on down. Ahead of others I ran 50m further down slope, a voice suddenly bellowed from below.
HEYYYY!!! WATCH IT!!!
THERES A CASUALTY HERE!!!
I skidded to a halt praying no loose stones would cascade into the mist below. I could just make out a man waving and shouting beside a bright orange bothy bag. Slowly I stepped across the slope to ensure no loose scree was going to fall upon the injured person, I already felt guilty for nearly running rocks onto them.
Apologising profusely I approached the party. It was a Skye guide, one of his clients had fallen and badly injured themselves. A member of the MRT John told his two clients and I to wait nearby and went over to assist. 10 minutes later he returned, the other guide had secured and made the casualty comfortable as possible, the mountain rescue were on the way. For the moment there was nothing that could be done and after returning the walking pole we descended down into the mist.
Having waited just 10 minutes I was already feeling the cold, I felt very sorry for the poor group waiting rescue. Even with a bothy bag and extra layers they must have been very cold!
I now descended the stone chute with caution, I suddenly appreciated that there could be anything below in the mist. It took another 20 minutes to reach the corrie base. With heavy rain, wind and a thick mist I wondered how they would get the poor chap off the mountain, there was no way the Helicopter would fly in this.
Another half an hour of descent went by, cold and wet we were anticipating the the mountain rescue to pass. I kept repeating what I had seen over and over, the reality of just how easy an injury is in the mountains and how serious its consequences could be suddenly seemed very real!
Behind the mist a loud thud of propeller blades suddenly roared across the valley. Following the track a sea king helicopter flying barely 50m above the ground thumped into view. With spotlights casting huge beams across the dark evening skye it landed just 100m in front of us. A rescue party leapt from the doors like a scene from apocalypse now. The helicopter raised into the air spraying mist hard against us, we crouched to duck against the down draft as it turned and disappeared once more into the mist.
My ears were ringing from the sudden noise of the engines, it was now eerily quiet. Approaching the MR team John aquatinted himself as a team member from another district. He returned with the words “They need man power…do you guys mind?” There was absolutely no questioning, everyone volunteered instantly.
We had reached the turning point to the bothy just 300m above sea level. Turning around we marched with the team as fast as we could to return back up the slope to the injured casualty. I was 1.8km and 500m ascent to return, after three munros I was already tired. My legs were burning, lungs heaving and I was sweating profusely. As we walked I tried to reach Ewan on the mobile, it was 6pm I was already late.
With no reception I hoped he would understand and carried on up. Almost unrelentingly we passed back over the col and marched up the scree slope. Looking at Johns two trainees I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only one with wide eyes trying to take in the dreadful and yet oddly exiting experience. It bothered me that I found the idea of helping exhilarating, this wasn’t fun and games there was a real person in real pain. The conflicting emotion helped to take my mind off the pain and burn of moving upward.
40 minutes after the helicopter had landed we reached the casualty. Again for I and the two trainees the best action was to put on every warm layer we had and wait well out of the way of the professionals. We were told it could be over half an hour until we would be needed to help carry the stretcher.
I took the chance to run the last 150m to the top of the scree slope, I knew I had mobile reception from the top. Running upward I past a few other hikers, warning them to skirt to the side I explained there was a rescue going on and to watch for knocking off rocks. Heaving for breath I ran up into the mist.
At the top I phone Paul, through crackled reception I explained the situation before attempting the same to Ewan…I couldn’t get through.
Back at the scene John suddenly called me aside. “Your friend in Glen Brittle reported you missing” My heart lurched! Again I was apologising profusely, “Its alright!” one of the senior team said “Reckon you could be in for a record for the fastest lost and found case this year.” Thankfully I had been accounted for, it was a reassurance to know Ewan had reported me, it was definitely the right thing to do. None-the-less I did feel guilty to have abandoned him, I hoped he would understand.
OK GUYS! LETS GO!
Strapped to a large stretcher with metal ski’s the casualty was secure. We joined the team which had now grown to about 14 people at the back of the stretcher on two long break ropes. Our job was to cling on, dig feet and break.
Straining as hard as I could to the rope I leant back with my feet deep into the scree. Behind me 3 others, ahead one more and another 3 at the stretcher. Beside me was the same again on the other side.
The teamwork was incredible, orchestrated from the front we were screamed instructions to ease it forward or hold fast! Slowly but steadily the stretched skied down the scree slope. It must have been a bumpy and uncomfortable ride the entire way down. Dosed up on ENTONOX the casualty at least had some relief.
After about 30 minutes we reached the corrie floor. The team could no longer ski down. Now came the lifting. 8 at a time with straps over a shoulder the team lifted the stretcher by hand. Slowly and cautiously they moved in 20-50m intervals between breaks. With 14 of us whenever a stop was made a team switch was done. This included myself and the trainees.
With a strap over one shoulder and weight of an 8th of the stretcher pulling the other way it was a surreal experience. Moving as part of a team I felt as if this were a dream more than reality, only the burning exhaustion of already tired muscles and cold shivers reminded me that this was real!
Where the terrain was too steep a human tunnel would be formed and the stretcher passed along in a chain. When the person at the end let go they ran to the front to continue the tunnel. Amidst the commotion I was enthralled and astounded at the perfect precision and professionalism shown by everyone. It was an incredible re-assurance to know that should I injure myself it wouldn’t be comfortable but the rescue would be so rapid and careful.
After four hours we had moved back to just 200m where the helicopter had dropped the team, through the MRT’s VHF radios a crackled call burst through the instructions. There was a weather window…the chopper was on the way.
Securing the patient one member struck an orange smoke flare and cast it into the scree. The rest of us retreated back and bunkered down to shelter from the downdraft. The mist cleared and the helicopter returned with a tremendous deafening roar.
It was like being in a tumble drier with a pressure hose…water, sand and wind blasted across the mountain side, a colossal “THUD, THUD, THUD” of the rotor blades echoed across the valley. As the helicopter positioned above a man descended like a spider on a web. In what seemed to be seconds he clipped and secured the stretcher and ascended back into the sky.
With a roar and a last blast of wind the helicopter banked out of the valley and rose into the cloud above. The casualty was safe and all was again silent.
Safe at last on the way to hospital
It was 10pm, the team picked up bags and stared to descend. It was over. I will forever be filled with respect and admiration for the dedicated souls who provided such an incredible service voluntarily to the hillwalking community.
If you would like to support them donations can be made here…
By 11 o’clock we had made it back to the MRT bothy. With a cup of tea and biscuit in hand I watched as the others dropped kit to return home. The realisation that I no longer had a lift suddenly hit hard, it was over an hours drive to Paul and bed at Ornsay. There was no way I could hitch hike at this time, especially from Glen Brittle.
To my relief a chap called Hamish offered a lift all the way there, he lived nearby. There was just one condition! I would have to join them at the Sligahan inn for soup, sandwiches and a beer. Having had only a few oatcakes since breakfast this was a very welcoming prospect.
A colossal spread of sandwiches and delicious soup didn’t disappoint, all washed down with an ale it was good to catch up with some of the team members before leaving. John and his clients left early with a wave.
A long and dozy car journey late I finally arrived at Ornsay. It was a few minutes to midnight and to my delight Paul was waiting in the local inn. Shaking Hamish’s hand I staggered into the bar and collapsed into a chair. It had been a 14 hour long hill day, I was utterly exhausted.
A long row out to the boat later and I collapsed into bed. I had to be up at 7am to catch the tide and needed every ounce of sleep I could get. Waking up would be a monumental challenge!
* * *
For the third day running I woke to anchor chains and motors above my head. For the third day running I sat up and whacked my head on the shelf….if I were here long term i’d develop a forehead callus. Groggy and entirely uninspired to scrape out of my bed I dozed as we motored back to Sandaig point.
By 7am I was on the water, it was calm and ahead of the yacht I set off at speed. With an empty kayak and the tide in my favour toward the infamous currents at Kyle Rhea I shot down the sound. In an just one hour of fast paddling I reached the entrance to Kyle Rhea itself, just as Mollymawk caught up.
Entering the race at Kyle Rhea
The water curled like a glassy tongue over rocks and along the narrow channel. Aiming for a small rapid I realised too late its existence owed itself to a very shallow rock. Cursing I scraped over leaving a peel of gelcoat as a memento to the rock.
Wanting to avoid a repeat I paddled out into the middle of the sound. Mollymawk drifted on the current nearby. Flat calm with wind the turbulence bubbled and boiled from underneath. Deep upwellings and swells bulged up around the kayak which nosed in odd directions with the tide. It was like riding a large river, I moved at incredible speed.
With the comfort of company and relative calm of the race I enjoyed passing through the sound. It wasn’t long before I could see Kyle of Lochalsh in the distance.
Leaving Kyle Rhea
Mollymawk motored ahead toward the harbour leaving me to paddle on alone toward the town. Still exhausted from the drama the day before I paddled a lot of the way across with my eyes fluttering and closed, sleep paddling was only a good idea in weather as calm as this but not recommended.
On the way to Kyle of Lochalsh half asleep
By mid-morning I nosed past a series of islets and into Kyle itself. At the harbour Paul and Beth had a steaming coffee brewing and were relaxing in the sun. Tying up beside them I joined in with the relaxation. We were waiting a few hours so that I could join more kayakers later in the day.
At mid-day I was dry, filled with tea and no longer falling asleep at the paddle. Setting out from the harbour with a giggle to the pronunciation of the boat “Shy Talk” which bore striking resemblance to the local slang for a seagull I paddled on.
I wasn’t alone, paddling beside me was Beth in Paul’s kayak. It was a welcome change to have a different pace and good conversation as the miles were eaten up. Passing under the lower road bridge we skirted along between the many islands to the north of the town. Ahead we aimed the short paddle to Plockton.
Shallow crystal clear sounds offered tremendous views to the sea bed, seals bobbed past and the wind swept coast provided a fantastic backdrop to our adventure. Laughing almost as much as we paddled it wasn’t long before we were just around the corner from town.
Ahead on a small island was a group of kayakers…these were friends! Alison French a good friend of dad’s and owner of Sea Kayak Plockton (http://www.seakayakplockton.co.uk) was leading a group for a days paddle. Paddling alongside Mollymawk which Paul then nosed onto the island bow first we joined the group.
With a good reception and hugs all round I suddenly found myself paddling in a group of 10. Company seemed to have escalated quickly. There were English, Scots, Americans and Canadians among us, all with their own interesting kayak tales and outdoor past. That last 5km to Plockton seemed to race by.
Passing over a shallow sandy spit we rounded into Plockton itself. A collection of small beautiful highland cottages the little town hidden behind a bay filled with yachts marked the end of the road for the time being. Landing and loading kit onto cars I left my kayak with Alison. For the next few days I wouldn’t need it.
Mum arrived in the large green landrover and within no time re-appeared with fish and chips. After a quick beer and socialise with Alison we left Beth alone to look after Mollymawk for the weekend.
Changed and dry I hopped into the car and fell asleep.We were headed south, tomorrow morning I would graduate!
You don’t need umbrellas when you have a box
Cheesy family photo