Archive for November 12th, 2011

November 12, 2011

Bothy vagabonds in the far north pt3 – Assynt

by backpackingbongos

It was a beautiful morning when we left the Crask Inn, the low sun lighting up the soft contours of the surrounding hills.  We headed south to Lairg before heading north once more on the single track A838.  This road was busier than what we had been used to in Sutherland and I had to keep my wits about me, lots of sharp braking to pull into passing places.  You do have to realise that ‘busy’ is relative though!  It was a stunning drive, first along the length of Loch Shin before the mountains finally surrounded us.  The highlight was soon after passing the estate hamlet of Achfarry.  First of all Ben Stack rose ahead of us in a perfect pyramid like a classic childs drawing of a mountain.  Then across Loch Stack there was Arkle, its quartzite screes glistening in the sunlight, a really impressive sight.

We finally parked in a layby underneath the impressive ramparts of Quinag.  At an altitude of 220 metres the views north were impressive but tempered by the knowledge that at the end of the backpack there would be a five-mile slog along the road from sea level.

Day 1 – 6.7 miles with 480 metres ascent

As we got out of the car the towering slopes of Quinag slowly started to disappear under a veil of mist, it was clear that rain was heading our way.  Therefore we were fully encased in waterproofs as we headed along a boggy path to Loch na Gainmhich.  Shortly after exiting the loch the Allt Chranaidh turns into a fine waterfall.  There was a frantic moment as Dougal got within inches of the precipitous drop and became deaf to our calls to come back.  Thankfully it did not end in tears.

It took a while to locate the exact line of the footpath but once found it was mostly firm and covered in gravel, a bit of a treat after the previous couple of backpacks.  As we climbed higher the view of Quinag opened up, revealing that it is more of a mountain range than a solitary summit.  Curtains of rain drifting by added to the atmosphere.

We passed three very wet looking chaps coming the other way as we climbed.  The one at the rear totally ignoring our greetings with a very stoney looking face.  He only responded when Pete bellowed, “I said hello” a second time.  Rudeness in the hills will not be tolerated by Mr Edwards!

As we climbed, the Corbett Glas Bheinn started to reveal itself to our right.  It looks like it is a cracking hill, a complex mass of rock and lochans from the north.  I quite fancy returning one day to camp high up next to Loch a Choire Dheirg.

As we reached the summit of the path at the Bealach a Bhuirich a huge transporter plane flew below us and out along Loch Beag.  It was impressive seeing such a large plane fly below you through a narrow valley.

A friendly family was passed on our descent from the Bealach, I think that it is great seeing kids out in the hills enjoying themselves.  An easy crossing was made of the stream that feeds the waterfall Eas a’ Chual Aluinn.  This I believe is the highest waterfall in the UK and a boggy path descends alongside the stream to the top of the falls.  However lunch was calling and we would get to see the falls from the bottom later on in the day,  hopefully a much better viewing point.

A rocky perch was found on which to eat our lunch and soak up the rough and rugged surroundings.  We spotted a couple descending from the Bealach towards us, Dougal unfortunately could hear but not see them.  This set off a series of deep barks which after a minute or so Pete tried to stem with a hug / restraint.  This set off a couple of unfortunate events for Pete.  Firstly sliding over rough rock to Dougal left a hole in his brand new waterproof trousers.  Secondly the sandwich that he was eating was left literally inches from Reubens nose.  Reuben could not resist the smell of salami and cheese, the first time since I have had him that he has stolen food.  Pete remained chipper though and helped Fiona with her sandwiches.

Setting off once more I regretted taking a 1:25,000 scale map rather than a 1:50,000 which is much more useful in the Scottish mountains.  The map I was carrying simply had too much information due to the complex terrain.  Therefore it was hard to read the contours and see where the path went.

The scenery throughout however was breathtaking, a real contrast to the previous couple of backpacks in the far north.

It was during one of our frequent map checking stops that Dougal managed to get hold of one of Fiona’s gloves.  An entertaining chase began! I had to put the camera down in the end when Reuben’s terrier nature suddenly shone through………..

With the glove back on Fiona’s hand we managed to locate the path that took us safely through the crags to the bottom of the valley.  Although clearly rarely used the path was a delight with grassy switchbacks down the rough hillside.  In time I would image this old stalkers path will be reclaimed by nature.

When planning the route I was worried that crossing the Abhainn an Loch Bhig would involve a lengthy detour upstream.  Thankfully water levels were low and we all got across dry-shod, some needing more persuasion than others.

Seeing as the Eas a’ Chual Aluinn is reputedly the highest waterfall in the UK, it was a slight disappointment to be honest.  In spate I would image it would be an impressive sight but it has competition from the awe-inspiring scenery that surrounds it.

After the pleasure of following well constructed stalkers paths, the terrain through the valley towards Loch Beag meant tough going.  A mixture of heather, tussocks and the odd patch of tricky bog.

Reuben is usually a nimble-footed creature in this sort of terrain and I often found myself wishing that I could move through rough ground with the same ease.  However even those with four-legged drive can get things wrong.  Just as he was about to leap over a particularly peaty bog the ground under his front paws gave way and he entered the black stuff nose first.  He looked a bit sorry for himself afterwards.

As we finally got our first sight of Loch Beag the afternoon light was slowly fading, providing a beautiful scene.

There was not a breath of wind and the loch was almost ripple free like a mirror.

With the shore reached there was still a way to go across rough and boulder strewn ground.  For me the highlight of the afternoon was the spotting of a trio of Common seals causing ripples on the loch.

Finally the bothy came into view and our thoughts once again turned to whether or not anyone was in residence.  Initially we thought our luck was in, until right at the last moment when we caught a whiff of wood smoke.  I was the first one to enter and my impressions of the inhabitant were not too favourable.  I had the feeling that he was a little underwhelmed to suddenly have our company.  After a quick nosey around I left to get my pack whilst Pete popped in to say hello, he soon exited with the same opinion as me.  The bothy was a tiny two-roomed affair and the occupant had his gear spread around both, three more people and two wet dogs would have been a crowd.  We made our excuses saying we would pitch our tents and join him later that evening.

I managed a lovely pitch metres from the shore, the rocky ground causing a bit of a challenge for my tent pegs.  Whilst erecting the Scarp1 I noticed Reuben enjoying something by the waters edge.  It turned out to be a seal skeleton with a few white fatty bits and what looked like a hand remaining.  Although Reuben looked like he was tucking into the best meal of the trip he was firmly pegged down by my tent to stop his disgusting eating habits.

Pete and Fiona elected to pitch as far as possible from me, perhaps my deodorant was finally wearing off?  As we all settled in our respective tents the rain started, first softly and then in earnest.  Once I was changed out of my muddy gear I decided that I was not leaving my tent for the night.  I snuggled down for the evening, cosy in my nylon cocoon for the first time that week, enjoying plenty of hot drinks and a homemade chilli fandango.

My initial plan for the tent arrangements with Reuben was for him to sleep in one of the porches on a foam mat.  However after watching him shiver and look at me rather forlornly he was allowed in the tent where he did his best to curl up as close as possible to me.  I was thankful that ticks had been almost non-existent that week.

Day 2 – 9.4 miles with 1,080 metres ascent

The wind picked up in the night and the rain continued to hammer on the thin nylon.  However I had what was probably the best nights sleep of the whole week, comfortable and secure in my own little world.  The wind and rain stopped at dawn leaving low clouds over Quinag.

After breakfast we went into the bothy and realised that we had totally misjudged the occupant Alan.  He had been out in the hills since April on his annual pilgrimage to the Highlands.  Seven months is a long time to spend alone wild camping and in bothies and he said that he had not really talked to anyone for a few weeks.  We had confused standoffishness with being quiet and reserved.  Alan even had a bag full of dog treats just in case he came across hounds on his travels, a huge thumbs up in my book.  After chatting with Alan for a while we left with regret for not spending time in front of the fire with him the night before.  There is probably a lesson there somewhere.

It was difficult to judge what the weather was going to do, as sunshine would quickly alternate with a threat of rain as we headed along the stoney beach to the Glencoul river.

The path marked on the map turned out to be a rough landrover track, thankfully the passing of time meaning that its edges had been softened by nature.  Easy conditions underfoot meant that quick progress was made up the glen.

For a hill of less than 500 metres in height, the Stac of Glencoul is a dominating presence, appearing as an unattainable dome of rock when looking at it front on.

However as height was gained and we journeyed further up the glen it became more apparent that it was in fact part of a moorland ridge.

At the outflow of Loch an Eircill we headed directly north, climbing steep heather slopes above a deeply incised stream.  The ground soon levelled out and we started picking our way upwards through bogs and rough grass towards a band of crags.  The plan was to contour round them and climb to a small lochan for lunch.

As expected, as we climbed the views opened up around us showing off the roughness of the surrounding terrain.  The Munro of Ben More Assynt still firmly with its head in the clouds.

To the west the tops were slowly shaking off the cloud, a brilliantly chaotic view of bog, rock, lochans and dramatic peaks.

Lunch passed without incidence and we were soon climbing the south-west ridge of Beinn Leoid, the bogs giving way to firm grass.  A glimpse of the view directly to the south was of gentler moorland terrain with a complicated network of lochs.

The view back towards the rugged west and Quinag got more superb with every step.

Contouring the south-west top of Beinn Leoid my eyes were drawn to the extensive vista to the south-east, the sort of view that makes my heart leap with joy.  We could almost see across the whole width of Scotland, the massive Loch Shin taking a sinuous course through a land of gentle contours.  It was simply lovely, something a photo really cannot do justice.

Reuben was sitting patiently next to me whilst I stood admiring the view with a slack jaw.  It then suddenly occurred to me just how much he blends in with the autumn grasses.  Maybe the true home of the Staffy is the mountains and moors rather than the urban environment.  He is still the only one of his breed that I have seen enjoying the freedom of the hills.

It was then a gentle walk to the summit across cropped grass and boulders.

The summit views were breathtaking, taking in a wide variety of scenery.  From the rugged seascapes of the west, to the lonely mountains of the north and the rolling moors of the east.

It would have been easy to hang around on the summit for hours but it was evident that the dogs were getting cold.  Even Dougal in his thick brown coat was curled up behind the wind shelter.  A ridge leads from the summit in roughly a northerly direction, the upper slopes made up of awkward boulders.

Lower down, easy grass once again dominated and we were able to appreciate for the first time what a fine hill Beinn Leoid is when viewed from below.

Mountain hares have a habit of waiting until you almost tread on them before making their presence known.  The pure excitement of this happening in front of two hounds was too much for them and they were off on the hunt.  They stood no chance really as the hare disappeared over a rise, but they followed in hot pursuit until they were out of sight.  Dogs running off at speed in the mountains is not a good thing, their brains not processing danger like ours, it would only take a cliff for things to end in tragedy.  Thankfully a minute later Rueben and Dougal reappeared, minus the hare.

Luckily they were both looking in the opposite direction when the second hare broke cover and it slipped away unnoticed.

The grassy slopes of the hill soon gave way to flat boggy moorland and we headed to where we hoped the path marked on the map started.  Our navigation was spot on and we were once again descending grassy switchbacks until the path became a landrover track.

We were soon back at sea level and approaching the fjord like Loch Glendhu, the bothy and nearby lodge coming into view.

For the second time in a row smoke was spotted coming from the bothy chimney.  After our misjudgment the night before we decided to make more of an effort with regards to the occupant.  Unfortunately it was clear that he was not a big fan of dogs after informing us that he does not like them jumping up, going near his food or sleeping on his bed (Reuben was making a beeline for his thermarest at that very point!).  The bothy is a big four roomed affair so we left him to it and did our own thing in the room next door.  It was evident that Reuben had overdone things that evening as he was very keen to lay down on his mat and not move.  When he did, it was done very stiffly and it looked like his back legs were aching.  He had been very active during the day, probably covering at least four times the distance as the humans, the race after the hare probably doing him no favours.  It is hard to get a dog to understand that it needs to pace itself!  A role reversal as Dougal carrying both his and Reuben’s dinner was the dog closely at heel all day.

Day 3 – 4.5 miles with 290 metres ascent

An unusually mild morning meant that breakfast was eaten outside the bothy, a great place to soak up the surroundings.

Fiona is obviously made of hard stuff or morphs into a mermaid as she disappeared for a while to go for a swim in the loch.  For me just looking at the clear water made me shiver and collecting water from the stream made my hand numb.  Packed up we set off back towards civilisation.

The map gives the impression of a nice level walk along the shores of the loch.  The reality was a rollercoaster of a track, climbing up and around walls of rock, brilliantly engineered in places.  The view back into the jaws of Glendhu was mightily impressive.  On the other side of the loch from the bothy we noticed a massive rock fall, clearly shown on the right hand side of the photo below.  I bet that made a huge roar as it happened and I hope no one was in its path.

Once again Quinag hogged the limelight, dominating the view.  One day I am keen to return to climb its peaks.

As we reached the public road the heavens opened, reminding us how lucky we had generally been with the weather.  There was now the slight issue of getting back to the car, as it was a 5 mile uphill slog away.  The walk with a backpacking sack really did not appeal.  In the end it was decided that Pete and Fiona would hide with the dogs whilst I would try my luck hitching.  I had checked out the bus timetables prior to the trip and there would not be one for several months!  I stood on the main road and waited and waited in the rain, vehicles are not frequent in these parts.  It took nearly 20 minutes for the first and second vehicles to pass without stopping.  Thankfully my charm was spotted by a young woman who had parked for a brief walk at the car park next to me.  After initially looking uncertain she offered me a lift and went out of her way to deliver me at the top of the pass.  A fine end to a memorable week in the far north.

You can read Pete’s version of events here.