Cappuccinos at 3500ft? Oh, yes please.
The frothy powder was the propellent that spurred my wearying legs up the fourth mountain peak of the day. We sheltered behind peak three’s cairn to munch doorstep sandwiches and chocolate while the chill wind blustered, numbing our hands and cooling the drinks.
By evening the day had mellowed to sun and long autumnal shadows when whole hillsides moved with herds of red deer and bounding mountain hares. Occasionally a ptarmigan dodged between the rocks while, high above us, skeins of early geese wheeled in from Scandinavia.
Spot-on map reading was provided by my son (who didn’t inherit his navigational skills from his mother).
For sure, a day to remember.
When dawn is breaking at 04.15 and the sun’s rays are just starting to inch their way down the rocky mountain tops, it isn’t easy to walk away from the wilderness.
I’d been camping out in the remote wilds of Fisherfield in Scotland’s far north west for two nights, climbing some of the most inaccessible hills in the country, and it was time to leave.
My friends tents were motionless in the half light; the inhabitants still asleep. Quietly I packed up my dew-sodden shelter, stuffed the gear into my rucksack and set off on the track between the sprawling lochs and hills. What a morning to be alive and alone.
At the first loch I unhooked my pack, washed my face in the soft peaty water, stowed my jacket and sized up the last of my food store: just an orange and a tiny breakfast bar. The walk would take at least five hours so I delayed my feast and crossed the stone causeway between two lonely stretches of water.
I heard the cuckoo calling and startled a few red deer as my boots grazed the stones of the rough path. And as I walked I tried to think of other mornings in my life that had felt as magical and momentous as this one. The early hours when my children were born are unforgettable, of course; there’s a string of dawns spent walking out from a corrie camp one romantic summer many decades ago that merge into one; and most nostalgic of all are the occasional early mornings of an idyllic childhood when my father woke me early to walk with him up to our high fields to collect the cows for the early milking. I recall anxious swallows swooping with food for their young in the eaves of the barns and the otherwise stillness of summer dawn as I held Dad’s hand and we walked up the road. I remember my sandshoes getting damp on dewy grass, the herd rustling and impatient at the gate and the precious feeling that no-one else in the world was up this early.
There was no-one else up early in Fisherfield either. I didn’t meet a soul for hours.
And I resolved to make more morning memories.
The hills lure you from every window in the wild rocky paradise of Assynt, and even in the rain the view from our hostel dorm to the massive hulk of Quinag was mesmerising. We dodged the stormy weather for a gentle evening stroll through rainbows to a chambered cairn just up the glen then decided to climb Stac Pollaidh next morning. It’s only 612m high but ranks 10/10 for drama.
It was a steep but short ascent and once we reached our high vantage we gazed over to the distant, outlandish rocks of Suilven, Ben Mor Coigach, Cul Beag and Canisp until their ancient outlines were imprinted in our minds, certain to call us back. Read more
Its gaelic name is Sgurr nan Conbhairean and it’s a high, elegant hill that’s hidden amidst the ravaged peaks of Kintail, a wild land that I thought would be far beyond my caution (i.e. terror) of exposure to huge drops.
The summit, behind the rounded top in the foreground, peaks at 1011m at the top of a steep slope and this picture’s taken from another high top, Carn Ghluasaid, the Hill of Movement. And yes, fortified by my patient pal, I endured a (scary by my standards) ridge walk and climbed them both. It was exhilarating to be so high, absorbing wave after dusky wave of the mountain ranges that stretch across Scotland, from the jagged Cuillin of Skye and Rum, south to the imposing lump of Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart and far beyond.
We saw red deer and ptarmigan, or snow grouse, at around 1000m. These chubby little birds don’t venture much below this height and a funny family of seven allowed us to watch them potter around on their rocks before they flew away in a covey of crisp white underbellies.
And now I’m back down at sea level and hungry again for the crunch of my beloved new boots on stony tracks, the scent of rocky streams in spate and the wind whirling my hair on the high tops.
I could do without this morning’s unbendable legs, but even that discomfort brings a certain gratification; I’ve earned it.
They’ve become an obsession.
Their remoteness has always been a draw: the feminine outlines or brutal ridges, the ruins of summer sheilings on lower slopes, the heather in autumn and the beauty of winter snow can’t fail to inspire, but this summer they’ve somehow filled all the space in my head and called me in the way the Camino de Santiago did last year.
I go to bed with a bundle of maps then pore over routes on the internet. My dreams are full of the tops I’ve climbed or the views of other hills I’ve seen from summits during the day. I check mountain forecasts and have my car permanently packed with camping gear in readiness for a rapid escape.
Heaving my body up more than 3000ft in the space of a few hours isn’t a pretty sight: there’s the red face, the sweat, endless glugging of water from hill streams, stops to catch my breath and internal debate about why the Hell I’m doing it. For pleasure? Really?
But then when the view opens up below and there are just a few feet to go to the cairn on the top the pain is forgotten.
Yesterday, after resisting temptation for months, I bought the Scottish hillwalkers Bible: The Munros. It was my consolation for being back in the city after two days when I camped near Tyndrum and climbed Beinn Dubhchraig and Beinn Oss, two lumps of hill which were shrouded in mist in the morning but cleared to spectacular sunshine just as we reached the second summit. A few days earlier I’d climbed Ben Lomond and the weekend before it was Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas.
Before they were all just names: iconic views from below or pictures on calendars and in coffee table books. Now I can stare up and remember: I’ve been there and it was so much more beautiful from above.
It might be a temporary phase, a passing passion. But “The Book” is open beside me and my socks are almost dry on the line.
If the sky is clear tomorrow…
It can take a lot of plotting, planning and scheming to find a way into one of the most spectacular pieces of wilderness in Scotland.
Unless you have the time and energy to carry a pack for days, you first have to negotiate your way through a padlocked gate which bars entry to most vehicular traffic. Local knowledge and being able to utter the “magic words” overcame that controversial barrier.
But the first 16 miles of bumpy road up the Glen Strathfarrar track were just the beginning. More scheming had resulted in a rendezvous and the opportunity to hitch a lift on a boat all the way up remote Loch Monar.
View from my tent on the shore of Loch Calavie
That gave us a fascinating insight into the way of life for folk who live up here all year round and a summit by summit commentary.
By the time we reached the stalkers’s house at Pait and finally heaved on our rucksacks to walk five miles further to Loch Calavie we had taken a few shortcuts and learned a lot. Choosing a campsite beside the loch was a great piece of advice.
We pitched our tents near the shore and set off on the slog up Lurg Mhor, the 986m hill which rises straight up from the loch. It’s known as Scotland’s most remote Munro and it’s a steep pull up to the summit cairn.
From here we were close to the neighbouring and (to me at least) terrifying Meall Mhor summit. I preferred to turn my back on it and look west instead, over the sea to Rum, Skye and the wonder of the jaggy Cuillin Ridge.
Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor
We considered tackling Bidean a’Choire Sheasgaich. It was close but would require another couple of hours of effort at the end of an already long day.
Instead we enjoyed the long walk back across a mossy hillside carpeted with wild flowers to stop for the day and cook down beside the water. I fell asleep to the sound of birds and the scent of a Highland hillside in June. No midges. No phone signal or internet access. Just peace and the stars.
I bought OS Landranger Map 25 today: Glen Carron and Glen Affric.
Which means I’ve spent hours drooling over mountains, stalker tracks and hill lochs, plotting routes, camping places and the key approaches to some of Scotland’s most remote Munros.
In gaelic they sound romantic: Carn nan Gobhar, Sgurr na Lapaidh, An Riabhachan and An Socach. They dominate the high wilderness between Loch Mullardoch and Loch Monar in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, miles from human settlement. If there’s time in our five day hike there’s also Lurg Mhor and Bidean a’ Coire Sheasgaich which stretch above remote Loch Calavie.
But the excitement of poring over the map and finally tackling these hills after talking about climbing them for more than 20 years is tempered with a little fear. Exposed ridge walks link some of them and are part of the deal, so I need to overcome the instinct to stay away from huge drops.
I won’t know how I’ll cope until I get there but (with a lot of teeth gritting) I did succeed in walking New Zealand’s Kepler Track ridge last December – largely because once I’d started the thought of returning over the same ground was too awful to contemplate.
Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull said: “Argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours”.
Well, in this year of getting on and doing the things I’ve always said I wanted to do, there’s no place to hide. No excuses.
We leave on Sunday.