summit camp on suilven
Sat, Oct 15, 2011
The weather vanes of the nation were spinning out of control in the southern counties for a change, while up north, in the northwest highlands, a passing high was calming things down and generally massaging the weather beaten denizens with watery sun and gentle breezes. In other words, I had a couple days free with the best weather in the far north west and without looking at the map only one choice sprung out. Suilven! Combined with the light winds, mild temperatures and settled forecast it also pointed to a summit camp. I’m a great fan of summit camps if the weather is right but the last time I’d gone for it was on the Sgurr of Eigg and the only patch I could find that was vaguely dry was on the literal edge of the cliffs with no margin for error. So I camped on the beach! This time though, I knew there would be space of a sorts as I’d seen a friend’s pictures from donkeys back of his tent on a flat patch somewhere on the ridge. So the plan was lug it up and wing it. Maybe camp on the ridge, perhaps even the summit. Who Knows and Who Cares is my motto. Just get out and go.
So I jumped in the car and left at 8am on Thursday morning, driving the 2.5 hours north past Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver to the road end near Glencanisp Lodge. I passed at most, six cars in all that time. Just as well as my head was continually doing the scene from The Exorcist, with the 360 degree spinning as I passed unbelievable, achingly beautiful, curvaceous, mysterious mountains. Sutherland is without doubt the best area of mountains in the UK. The people are few, the roads are wide fast and empty and the possibilities for remote wandering endless. Simply stunning country. Anyway, my jaunt started at the public road end a few km from Lochinver and the parking here is tight to say the least. There are two wee spots and if everyone plays nice, you can get three cars into one and a couple into the other. If they’re full up then it’s a drive back to Lochinver and a long walk-in as there is no parking anywhere along that road. A large van had filled up the two car space but luckily there was just another car in the other one with chaps up from Middlesbrough who had been up An Teallach the day before and were heading up Suilven for the day. We had a good old blether and I humphed on the sac and headed off into wild country.
The stalkers’ path from Glencanisp lodge is superb as it takes you over intervening ridges, past Suileag bothy and on towards Loch na Gainimh (the sandy loch) below Canisp. You could take a mountain bike along it to the loch, at least as far as the Suilven path anyway although it is very boggy in places and loose on the steeper climbs. In fact, the theme for the day was bog. Once across the footbridge and round the corner a bit, you come to the hill path although it’s really just a line of bogs. Very very wet bogs. On the way back I just gave up on the last part of the path and contoured round the hillside to meet the stalkers’ path higher up and bypassing the worst of the gloop and glaur where the hill path meets the stalkers’ path. It does get better higher up but not much.
I had three options at my disposal. Camp at the lochans at 300m below the access gully which you can see above, to the left of the brighter green patch. Camp somewhere on the ridge or camp on the summit. As is my wont though, I’d been walking non stop by the time I reached the lochans and was raring to go, so I headed straight up the gully with an extra 2 litres of water strapped to the pack. I knew the lochans would be brackish with perhaps not much outflow so I took the chance of filling up lower down where the path hits a steeper section and was rewarded with wonderfully clear water, which I proceeded to haul up the almost vertical gully. A couple of ladies I met coming down said there were spots just beyond the summit so I was pretty sure that’s where I was headed with the gear. Have a look at the cliffs though. From the summit it’s about 500 feet of near vertical rock then 700 feet of steep hillside back to the lochans and I camped where the puff of cloud is sitting on the summit. About ten feet from the edge.
The gully, although steep, is easy on the zigzagging path and the views along the ridge to Meall Meadhonach are just stunning. The landscape round here is Lewisian Gneiss. At 3 billion years old it’s some of the oldest rock in the world and Suilven is formed from Sandstone sitting on top of it and the weathering is mind blowing. It’s like someone has banged a lump of sand between their hands so that it’s squashed up into a long narrow line, wider at the base but only, literally, twenty feet wide at the top. With thousand foot drops on either side. In a world of lists, ticks and media personalities, Suilven is the nod between gentlemen at the dinner table. The nod that produces the vintage beverage known only to the few.
Now that illuminates somewhat on the events unfolding as I approached the summit. For standing at the bizarre wall that cuts across the ridge was Murdo the Radical Tory. No less than Murdo Fraser, who is currently aiming to take over the Scottish Tories and sever connections with the southern rabble who are apparently causing great damage to the blue cause north of the border. He was with another two chappies and they really were rather nice and pleasant. And to boot, they’d walked in from Inverkirkaig which, although Suilven is a connoisseur’s mountain, the Inverkirkaig approach is for pure ascetics of the craft. It’s longer and the ascent of the gully on that side harder. I was impressed and being men of the mountains, politics wasn’t mentioned. We just had a nice blether and I took their pictures for them. At the summit however, they were a little, well, too nice in that way that people who rely on the public eye not glowering at them have to watch everything they say and do in the presence of the great unwashed. And I must say I was rather fruity shall we say, what with the non stop walk from the car and the copious amounts of sweat expelled from my person. I don’t suppose folk like Murdo can really relax in the company of the public, what with toss pots with youtube accounts always on the lookout for a quick media buck at someone else’s expense. I wish I’d just come out and said, “f**k it. I’m no journalist, just a minging mountain man out for a night on the summit. Let’s shoot the breeze and give me the low down on Annabelle Goldie. Is it true what they say…?“. But they dropped their sacs and walked off quite a long distance and didn’t come back for ages. Curious I thought. When I got back home though, the news was full of mince about Liam Fox getting the heave-ho from Malcolm Tucker no doubt. I wonder if they were on the blowers to HQ getting briefed on the Tucknerian ousting. Or maybe I just watch too much telly.
Anyhooz, to the point of my taking leave of society for a bit. The summit camp. When I popped out on the summit I jumped for joy at the vast expanse of tent friendly ground and like a gold diggin’ varmint staked my plot by pitching the Akto on the best bit before anyone else came up, not realising no-one else would be daft enough to sleep on the edge of a thousand foot cliff. However, the summit did throng for a while and the tent became a bit of a personality as people milled around taking pictures of it. Murdo must have been relieved the tent was the centre of attention for a change. Steam lazilly rose into the windless air as I brewed up some soup and wandered around in a daze at the fabulous view.
To the south was Cul Mor, Stac Pollaidh and the Summer Isles while to the north stretched hazy hills towards Cape Wrath and the North Pole. It was out of this world. There’s a wee stone seat fashioned from slabs that looks out over the Minch to the Isle of Lewis and as the summit emptied I pulled off shoes and socks and sat barefoot with my soup watching the sun slowly sink and the lighthouses along the west coast light up. Each proclaiming their patch of ground. Winking at each other like midnight dames touting for business from passing ships in the night.
And then it happened. The sky went blood red as the sun burnt through the clouds on the horizon and I ran about the summit barefoot, camera in hand like a man who has lost grasp on reality and had taken to whooping and dancing on top of a remote mountain. Indeed that was what I was doing!
The sky above the Summer Isles burnt as if on fire as night descended on Loch Sionascaig and Stac Pollaidh.
Cul Mor was a mountain shaped cutout in the sky. The wizards who dwell in the serrated ridge of Stac Pollaidh had decided to borrow it for the night, their wands leaving a mountain shaped hole in the night sky.
The sunset exploded in a slow motion fireball, beginning in the west, swinging south then southeast, almost reaching the far east beyond Meall Meadhonach.
Then it slowly retreated back to the west before burning out over the dark and remote lands that stretched out a thousand feet below me.
And I retreated to the tent to brew up supper and what a view I had as the sun slipped into the Atlantic and the moon appeared behind me through a slit in the clouds.
There was very little wind as the steam rose into the night sky and a lone grouse or ptarmigan flew at high speed just above the tent and landed a few feet away. It was too dark to tell what it was but it was much smaller than the huge raven that hovered above the cliffs, level with the tent before flipping over and descending out of sight. I wondered if the grouse came here every night. I wondered a lot of things.
I fell asleep listening to the Outdoors Station podcasts of walking with Chris Townsend, a surreal experience I must say and turned in around 11:30. I slept soundly until around 2:30am when a giant blast of wind hit the tent and shook me awake and from then until 5am I lay listening to the wind roaring up the south face. There were lulls of around 5mins between blasts and then I could hear it coming up the face, like a train. It then swooshed round the ridge lower down and a few seconds later crashed over the summit, initially flying high over the tent where I could hear moving fast above me, before losing momentum and crashing down on top of me, buffeting the tent and shaking everything around. This continued for about 2 hours but around 4:30 the lulls had stopped and it was a continuous barrage of gale force winds screaming up the face and straight into the tent. The inside shook and rattled like the South Col and after one particularly ferocious gust threatened to pop something, I’d had enough and packed up. Normally it wouldn’t bother me as the Akto is bomb proof and the tent was in no danger. The pegs were well into the ground and it wasn’t raining but being a few feet from the top of a thousand foot cliff didn’t do my nerves much good and I planned my exit to make sure nothing ended up over the edge. That’s the great thing about carrying the tent strapped to the outside of the sac. I just pack everything away in the comfort of the shelter and then once outside, down the tent and strap it on. Job done in 10mins.
5am. Suilven summit. Almost full moon. Orion high in the south, the Plough upended in the north west. Bent into a gale force southerly. Welcome to life.
This is what life is for. I was standing on a giant moon dial. Suilven’s shadow cast long over the northern glens and low hills. In the south it was light enough to walk torchless while in the north it was dark in Suilven’s shade. I made my way down the narrow rocky ridge in the moonlight, not bothering with artificial light. On the north face I could hear stags roaring at each other under the stars and as I reached the wall at a quarter to six I found shelter and brewed up soup and porridge, gazing up at the black outline of Meall Meadhonach as Mars came and went behind the scudding clouds. Someone had tilted the Plough on end and it had overflowed into Loch na Gainimh. All around me the land was an ethereal ghostly white. Time and again when I go bed at home and look out on a moonlit landscape I say to myself, “it’s a night for the hill”. Well here I was on the hill on a moonlit night and it was utterly fantastic. In the quiet shelter of the wall the roar of the stags echoed round the north face and behind me the black summit outline looked Alpine, almost Eiger like in its leaning shape. It was one of the best half hours I’ve ever spent in the hills. Alone on a moonlit mountain with nothing to hear but the rut. When the boots hang unused on the back of the door and people stare at the old man on the bus with the glazed look, it’ll be me remembering that half hour.
With the wind rising I packed up, strapped on the torch and descended the black gully into the dawn light. It was a fairly easy descent, even by torchlight and by the time I reached the lochans the eastern sky was brightening behind Canisp. I stood on the shore for what must have been another half hour listening to the stags on Suilven. There was one at the eastern end of the hill, low down. One on the eastern side of the face, about half way up. Another on the western side of the face and one more off to the north somewhere, on the low ground hidden from me. The easternmost one would start it off, clearing its throat with a few hollow grunts then launching into a full throated bellowing that set off the other two on the face. The western face one was the highest and must have been just below the start of the cliffs and he was certainly making the most of his elevated position. But the westernmost one had the best vantage point and best voice. When he roared it echoed across the face from end to end and sent shivers up my spine. There was barely a breath of wind and the sound traveled clear and pure through the morning air. It was magic.
Eventually I tore myself away from the roaring stags, fish rising in the lochan and the birds calling in the dawn light and plodded down the boggy track. Where I met the stalkers’ path I turned round and almost fell over. It was just out of this world and the sun was just coming up over Loch na Gainimh, newly replenished from a celestial pot. I wondered what fabulous creatures had poured from the sky that night into its deep and dark depths.
I stopped off at the bothy on the way back and sat outside munching my last pork pie. I’d forgotten about the outside world as at every turn on the trip something new had taken over my senses. I’d been entranced by a north west sunset, a moonlight descent, a star watching porridge session and had a front row seat at the rutting Olympics and now I was relaxing outside the bothy gazing out over Suilven and savouring one of the best trips I’ve ever had. A truly wonderful adventure. Lang may they continue.
You can see all the pics here.