Our blog - Northern Escape, May'17

A blog of our mountain adventures in Scotland, hiking, biking, rock-scrambling and more !

Northern Escape

5-9 May 2017
Several days hiking up some of the majestic peaks in the far north of Scotland. Steven and John were leading...

Sometimes things just don't go to plan ! We'd put a fabulous event up onto the website called 'The Northern Escape' - five days of glorious hiking to some of the famed peaks in the far north of Scotland. The event was similar to last years which proved very popular indeed. This year we only had one taker ! However, that meant we could tweak it to exactly what our client wanted. So out went Quinag and in came the Stack of Glencoul, the Foinaven and Arkle linear hike became a circular route and a few other alterations. This was going to be a cracker !

Day 1 - Foinaven and Arkle

I met Lynn by Lochstack Lodge at the foot of Arkle in glorious conditions - blue skies and a gentle breeze. Gear sorted - chucking out needless stuff to lighten our load - we started on our hike northwards. A fine track took us around the base of Arkle to the foot of Foinaven, from where we surveyed the route choices upwards. A scree direct ascent, or a slighlty longer curve around - we opted for the latter, ending up scrambling up some loose quartzite blocks to reach Cadha na Beucaich. A bit of fun trying to squeeze into the stone shelter at the col, we then hiked for another half hour or so to reach the summit. What an amazing view ! To Clisham in the outer hebrides to Torridon and An Teallach an even Shetland. Cloud did lurk over Orkney.

As we we preparing to leave, two other folk arrived and we enjoyed a bit of a blether before returning to Cadha na Beucaich. Our descent would take a different line from the route up - directly down the scree, which proved much easier than expected - we should have ascended this way earlier. A bit of a hike over heather and we were at Loch na Tuadh and time for a spot of lunch before our haul up Arkle.

There's quite a bit of heather to trudge over to get to the base of Arkle, then with keen eyes, we picked a route up the screes which looked easy. Well, easier perhaps. Two steps up, one step down, we zig-zagged our bodies up the steep slopes to finally arrive on Arkle's fine summit again with more stunning views. The cloud was beginning to pull further inland - Cranstackie and Beinn Spoinnaidh's summit crests were now enveloped in mist. But we were enjoying fine clear conditions and continued along the curving crest of this superb mountain.

The descent took us southwards, picking a route of gentle grassy terrain through the rock outcrops. At last we were in the forest below, meeting a couple of guys camping under a bivvi. With a cmapfire - a bit of a concern considering the raging fires around Suilven over the last few days ! The last part of the day involved following a tarred road back to the roadside, 12 hours after we'd set out, but well worth the effort !

My Garmin Fenix recorded an ascent of 2,200m over a distance of 31km ! See this : https://www.strava.com/activities/974028570.


Day 2 - Cul Mor and Cul Beag

A slightly easier day in terms of distance, ascent and terrain. The weather continued on the glorious and scenery was simply stunning. Lynn arrived at the car-park below Knockan Crag, well refreshed by a good night's kip at the Inchnadamph Hotel. We left my van by the roadside and drove together in Lynn's car to the start of the walk, a couple of miles to the east of Stac Pollaidh.

The start of the path is not overly obvious - there's no car park, no sign, just a small cairn by the roadside from where if you look uphill carefully, you'll see the start of a rough grassy track. So we started out day on this, getting into a good rhythm. Less than 1km up from the roadside, the highest point on the track was reached, which meant we had to leave it behind and strike up on heather and grass aiming directly for the small col between Cul Beag's summit and northern minor peak. A rough path can be picked up higher up, taking us to the col, where we left out sacks (yes this does feel like cheating) for the final ascent to the summit. The panorama was huge, clear and stunning - we hovered around for quite some time taking it all in.

Back to the col and a rough descent over heather took us to the valley below. Lovely to see natural woodland thriving around the lochans. More grass and heather was clambered up and over to lead us into the small hidden valley in which rests Lochan a'Dheirg a'Chiul Mhor. This is a special place, very calm and beautiful and we decided to savour this by having lunch on the sandy beach view a full-frontal view to Stac Pollaidh.

After lunch we debated our route, deciding to follow the river upstream. Trout swam around under our feet ! The route looked easier on the map than it actually was - the OS magically made some of the contours invisible giving an illusion of a gradual slope ! When we found this out, we left the river behind and aimed directly uphill for Creag nan Calman, followed by the grassy hillside leading to Cul Mor's summit.

After enjoying the views and trying to spot the evidence of yesterday's fires on Suilven, we began our descent back to the roadside. Quite quickly a path was picked up and followed all the way - I like this, you can go into 'neutral gear' and relax for the easy walk back, savouring the views on route.

My Garmin Fenix recorded an ascent of 1,700m over a distance of 17km ! See this : https://www.strava.com/activities/974028570.


Day 3 - Suilven

Lynne had been out with Steven over the last few days on Foinaven and Arkle, as well as Cul Mor and Cul Beag, (and indeed had done Canisp beforehand), but she was still full of beans and ready for another day with me. The plan had been Suilven, traversing from Inverkirkaig and returning via Glencanisp, with a car at both ends. The problem was that there had been an extensive moorland fire due to the exceptionally dry conditions, and that had put the route in doubt. A quick call to the estate by the people at the Inchnadamph hotel, (which was typical of their great service as reported by Lynne - Highly recommended), and it was confirmed the coast was clear to go ahead.

It was the first time I have walked in this way, and it is lovely. We didn't expect the waterfall to be up to much given the dryness, but it was still spectacular - I can only imagine what it's like in spate. We nearly trod on a basking grass snake on the path on the way, and were soon in amongst the blackened ravages of the fire. We expected it to be worse, but the wind took most of the smell away, and on the reasonable path it was possible to walk without too much soot. It will soon grow back, but is a stark reminder of the care needed in such conditions.

The path up to the bealach is eroded, but not as badly as the Northern flank, and we were soon there, after chatting to a chap who had canoed in from Elphin with his wife and camped at the loch end. Cracking idea.

We then turned right, as I wanted to get Lynne to the more challenging scramble of the East top before she had time to mull it over. My ruse worked, and she kept coming until the final wee chasm before the last exposed scramble. The heebie-jeebies started to take a hold, and we discussed opportunities and fear versus disappointment. Finally, we agreed to take it a bit at a time, and as each rocky sandstone step passed, her confidence increased.

At the last admittedly intimidating moves, we agreed a wee rope around the waist would add to her security, and within a few minutes and some excellent, confident scrambling moves, it was a rather emotional but proud Lynne that was standing on the surprisingly flat summit plateau. Top effort, and one that has taken three visits to produce. Very well done. The descent, which had troubled her the most, was taken with aplomb, and I suspect someone even surprised themselves!

We then chatted to a couple of lasses at the main bealach as we had lunch, and we all spied a raven who was keeping his eye on us. 'He's waiting for us to go' said Lynne, the keen twitcher, 'and then he'll be in for the crumbs'. We set off for the main summit after bidding farewell to the lasses, and enjoyed our summit views, enhanced by the view back to the spectacular East summit we had already bagged. When we returned to our sacks, abandoned at the bealach, we realised what the raven had been up to - He had pecked at Lynne's sack, but couldn't get in. He had then opened my top zip, and ransacked my compartment. Phone, gloves and opened tissues were everywhere, my torch was out of its bag, a bag of dates had been opened and devoured, a cereal bar simply gone, and my rope bag had been pulled through the hydration slot and pecked. Wee chancer!!! I had heard of it, but never witnessed it before. Beware of leaving a sack with zips exposed.

Our descent past the ongoing but much-needed path works was uneventful, apart from some awful grafitti carved high up on a sandstone plaque....moron. Arin, whoever you are, there on the 4th September last year, you are a disgrace! We filled up with water at the burn by the main track, and then made the long traipse out, bouyed by the Honesty shop at Glecanisp Lodge, where Lynne treated me to an ice cream and a can of pop. Lovely, and most welcome in the sun. A great day, 9.5hrs of pure enjoyment.


Day 4 - Stac of Glencoul

So surely Lynne must be after an easier day now? True, the conditions are incredibly dry, so unusual routes can be possible, but a 5th big day on the trot? Why not?! How about a visit to the Eas a'Chuil Aluinn waterfall from the roadside at Loch Gainmhich, then down into the glen and off piste for a 'brutal' (I quote) traversing ascent of the Stack of Glencoul. Then over peat hags galore and down to Loch an Eircill, then up pathless and steep ground to Beinn Leoid, one of the most remote Corbetts. Finally, we can finish down the unlikely track into Gleann Dubh through some spectacular scenery. Sounds great....26k, 1600m of ascent, 1750m of descent, 50% pathless. 10hrs.

It must be said that it was a really good choice, as in anything other than these conditions it would have been very very challenging indeed given the terrain, so it made sense to go for it. As it was, we marvelled at the journey through some of the Scotland's most remote and striking landscapes, and one different again to so many other grandeurs on offer. A real memorable day, and one felt in the soles of the feet on the hot march out along the track. NB - Should have had thinner socks on. The falls had some lovely rainbow effects on show, but in the dry conditions, I suspect it was a shadow of what it is normally. The view from the Stack was spectacular, and way above its demure stature.

It was also heartening to see the excellent hydro-electric scheme on the Maldie Burn, which has been all but buried, and blends in fabulously with the environment. In my opinion, many times more desirable than wind factories blotting our landscape.


Day 5 - Beinn Mor Coigach

The forecast just keeps on giving good weather, so Tuesday is another corker of a route. Lynne decides on a 'short' day of 7hrs, 13k and 1250m of ascent and descent, doing the full round of Beinn More Coigach and Sgurr nan Fhidhleir from Culnacraig, but with the condition that we take in all of the knolls and outcrops for good measure. Again, it is an inspired choice, with excellent easy scrambling over the narrow Garbh Coireachan ridge, (where my partner indulges her new-found scrambling confidence and skills to the full), followed by some simply breath-taking views, regularly enhanced by occasional cloud, but even that slowly dissipated.

We made steady progress in an anti-clockwise direction, and I must say the view from the little knoll at P648 on Beinn nan Chaorach was the icing on the cake for me, with the dramatic cliffs of Fhidhleir to the immediate right, Stac Pollaidh et al stretching out directly in front, and the glinting coastline to the left. Memorable. Another highlight was stumbling across a brace of fine ptarmigan on Ben More Coigach, and then watching them as they were reluctant to leave the area, probably due to nesting. They were fantastic in their spring plumage, red eye flashes resplendent.

Lynne has oodles of hill experience, and an extensive list of mountain walking ticks over the years, but she particularly likes mountain journeys, where the movement amongst the rocks and heather counts just as much, if not more than the summits. Obviously we were blessed with exceptional weather, but I must say the subtle change in objectives and motivation was very enjoyable, and it was a real pleasure to share.

So today I have a rest morning, before driving South for a Yorkshire 3 Peaks trip. Lynne? Oh, she's off up some of the Fannich munros of course!!!!!

For anyone that had contemplated booking this trip or any other to this area, I hope our pictures and words inspire you, as it really is a very special place, unique.



More photos by Steven and John are here on Flickr.



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