Friday, 28 July 2017

Fisherfield: the land of far beyond

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst - that's usually the mantra, especially on a journey into the remotest mountain country in Scotland. But here I was, preparing for the best, sunscreen, shorts and sun hat packed, two bottles of water in the side pocket. The weather forecast was unequivocal. After many, many years of anticipation, this long walk over the mountains of Letterewe and Fisherfield was about to be seared in my memory in green, gold and blue.

I had 36 hours to play with. Two long, rough days of walking, six mountains and one camp. I walked in from the north. As I left Corrie Hallie, the hills were sloughing off the last of the previous day's rainclouds. The road was still slick with water and droplets glittered on birch leaves as I toiled up the track - the start of long trails through to Kinlochewe and Poolewe to the south.

An Teallach under cloud
Past three tired-looking German lads heading north on the Cape Wrath trail, past brooding An Teallach and its cloudy cauldrons, then out at last on to the wide, windy moor, on to the threshold.

Nothing waits on the other side except yourself and what you bring to it. A 'mountain fastness' - this is maybe the closest we have to such a thing, not just a secluded valley or a dead-end but a whole empty landscape of mountains and rivers with no roads, no bridges, no houses. But let's not get carried away. I drop down to the bend of the River Sealga with its little alder wood and grassy flats and find remains of at least three buildings, just the overgrown bases of the walls left now. People once stood here and looked out, just as I'm standing outside looking in.

Up ahead,Beinn a'Chlaideimh, the hill of the sword, looks like it's wielded from on high as it cleaves the cloud.

I wade the broad river and throw down pack and poles at the far bank, ready for lunch. I'm joined by another walker, with a livewire springer spaniel called Genghis whose nose regularly invades my space as I fish things out of my food bag. After lunch the three of us walk and talk our way up the slopes for a bit before parting ways - I want to take the steep route up the prow of the hill for the views of An Teallach whilst Mark with a dog in tow heads south to easier slopes away from the crags.

The cloud is burning off quickly but the wind still bullies with violent localised gusts and eerie thrums and moans amongst the boulders and hollows.

The climb gets a bit steep and sketchy, not a place to slip, but I'm rewarded with a close encounter with ptarmigan, a finely honed ridge and a fine perch for a second lunch. That climb has taken it out of me. In fact I can't keep on top of my hunger all day. I later worked out that total ascent on this first day was over 2,000 metres.

Onwards into the afternoon, a long descent of Sword Mountain towards Sgurr Ban, the white peak bristling with pale boulders making an awkward climb for tired legs.

Then beyond is Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, highest peak on the round. On the way to the next bealach I spot two people descending the steep zig-zag path you can just make out on the right of the picture below, and catch their voices above the crunch of boots on scree.

Yet I somehow miss them - we manage to pass on opposite sides of a huge boulder. Attacking the zig-zags I get a second wind. I measure my progress against the couple now climbing Sgurr Ban and play a game, trying to reach the top of my hill before they reach theirs. It keeps me going until a few dozen metres off the summit where I stop to take photos.

Beyond the Mullach the ridge curves westwards to Beinn Tarsuinn. I'm captivated by this strange little mountain. There's something sculpted, artificial about the blocky tiers and columns of its north face, like an exotic long-abandoned vertical city carved into the rock. Or maybe the sun is getting to me. My water is all gone and the ridge is dry as a bone.

A path bypasses the next rocky lump, Meall Garbh - the rough hill, well named. On the next col there's nothing else for it, I dump the bag and drop some way down green slopes into the corrie where seeps and trickles start to gather and flow more freely. I top up bottles, drain them, top them up again.

The final climb of the day to Beinn Tarsuinn is an easy one...

...but the subsequent descent isn't. I'm dog tired and the ridge is rough and saw-toothed, the 1:50,000 map just doesn't do this level of detail. At one point the route climbs onto a weird, broad, slightly tilted platform of scored slabs, maybe the size of a tennis court. Then a bypass path slightly below a sharp, pinnacled crest and a teeteringly steep descent on jelly legs, as sure-footed on the sloping stones and gravel as a drunk on floor covered with marbles. I dislodge a large stone which quickly bounds down the slope, thwacking off boulders like a pinball. I can hear it long after it's lost to sight... It's getting a bit silly now and I need to stop.

The first piece of flattish ground will do nicely, though it's a bit damp. Then camp set-up and chores, trying to follow the routine through a haze of fatigue, without cutting corners. Soup, two butteries, mac 'n' cheese with smoked sausage barely touches the sides. Hot chocolate and a flapjack and I feel human enough again to venture outside my shell and outside the tarp to just be where I am. A rough and beautiful world of rock, water and sky, a flawless northern summer twilight.

Just before midnight the wind veers from west to south. Changing the Trailstar door is a minor annoyance but as I get into my sleeping bag, it's unmistakeably warmer. True enough, day two is a proper scorcher.

I'm ready to go just after 9 and wend my way across a broad col of rocks, bogs and trickles to the long slopes of A'Mhaighdean. This is the tortured, wildest end of this wilderness - the great cliffs of Beinn Lair, the many lochs cradled at different altitudes, and beyond it all, the sea.

A'Mhaighdean summit at 10.30am is all mine. Here I am - at long last.

An easy winding descent to another wild rocky col - and now the steep red scree dome of Ruadh Stac Mor. I'm feeling rested and refreshed and blessed to be here, burning up the screes to the top for an early lunch. I linger a bit, no rush - more or less all downhill now.

It's a long descent north between some lovely lochans, but it's steeper an more complex than the maps reveal, with bands of broken craggy ground to be negotiated.

My feet are getting hot and chafed in boots. Off the summits, it's really hotting up. I reach the stalker's path that crosses from Carnmore bothy and down towards Shenavall. I stop to change into trail shoes, shorts and fresh socks. Aaah, the relief. I'm practically skipping down the fine, gravelly path though my pack now has nearly a couple of additional kilos of boot in it. The path swoops down in sweeping switchbacks into Gleann na Muice Beag, then by the main river in Gleann na Muice.

Then in the valley flats the path deteriorates for long stretches into mud and bog. Fatigue rises again. I ford the river at Larachantivore and plough laser-like across the swampy flats towards another river crossing, then Shenavall and a brew.
Beinn Dearg Mor above Larachantivore cottage
There are some Cape Wrath Trail hikers in residence, including the couple I missed the day before. I brew coffee and spend a pleasant 45 minutes chatting. All have been through Bendronaig Forest to the south and seen the scars of hydro works there. Will the massive haul roads be removed when the works are done? Non-committal noises hang in the bothy air.

I'm not quite done. In my haste I somehow miss the path on the moor above Shenavall for a mile, then stumble on it again. A second evening is drawing on but it's easy now, down and down towards Corrie Hallie on a track, back through the shivering birches and birdsong. Behind me the mountains sink beyond view again. But they really are there, I know that now. Go and see for yourself.

PS: I got exceptionally lucky this time. Here's what these mountains can be like when the weather doesn't play nice.