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  • Writer's pictureHiker Heather

Birthday Road Trip 2022 : Assynt, Scotland

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

A week spent in a mountain hut in Assynt climbing Quinag, Stac Pollaidh, Suilven and Cùl Mòr

It was only back in August of this year that I was lucky enough to experience Assynt for the first time whilst passing through on the Cape Wrath Trail (you can find my blog posts on the Trail here). I will never forget that day... I was bog-hopping alongside the River Oykel, through sideways rain as I made my way along the Trail towards Benmore Lodge, I hadn't seen a soul all day, other than a tweed-clad Englishman who was fishing for salmon (and probably paying a lot of £££ for the privilege of doing so! Apparently, the River Oykel is one of the most famous and productive salmon fisheries in the Highlands and is generally booked up for years in advance!). The gent had made a remark as I passed, that I must be of a hardy nature to be passing through these lands, he had asked me where I was going and if I was aware of the nature of the terrain ahead, I smiled and told him that I was indeed aware and that I was on the Cape Wrath Trail... the gent once again warned me of the hostile and remote terrain ahead and told me to be incredibly careful before boding me farewell, with an anxious smile... I was already acutely aware of the harsh nature of this landscape, it was only back in April of this year that a chap had gone tragically missing here whilst hiking the Cape Wrath Trail, Glyn Smith a 76-year-old from Cambridge had been hiking the Trail and was last seen at Benmore Lodge, sadly, there has been no sign of Glyn since, despite efforts made by the Mountain Rescue. Glyn had passed my mind many times whilst hiking the Trail, I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to him - what accident or mistake had been made? How could he have just vanished without any trace of even any of his gear being found? It is just so incredibly sad, a stark reminder of the fact that the hobbies and sport in which we choose to pursue can come with a great deal of risk attached, that accidents and mistakes can still happen despite all of the efforts we may go to, in order to attempt to assess and mitigate any risk... I continued on passed Benmore Lodge and just at that moment, as if on que, in order to dispel any worries or concerns I had about the interaction with the gent just moments before, the dank cloud started to lift and the sun appeared and revealed to me the landscape ahead - I stood there fixated, in complete awe at my surroundings...

I couldn't help but chuckle to myself - my mate, Jim, who I had spent the first half of the Cape Wrath Trail with, had told me that I would fall in love with this place and he wasn't wrong! That evening would only serve to cement my love for Assynt as I spent the most idyllic (despite the midge) evening camped on the shoulder of Conival at Am Bealach, a night now forever engrained in my memory...

It was there that I promised myself that I would return to Assynt, as soon as possible... And so it was, that upon my return from the Cape Wrath Trail, I would make plans to return to Assynt for my birthday in November...

A HUGE thanks to Ordnance Survey for gifting me this incredible custom-made map! Head on over to the OS website to find out more about these maps which would make the most thoughtful gift or souvenir of your time spent somewhere special.


6th November - Quinag

Distance

8.75 miles / 14km

Terrain

Steep mountainous terrain but with good paths and minimal scrambling

Start/ Finish

Navigation

Whilst planning for this trip, my beloved little tent had been back with MSR for some much-needed repairs and I had no idea when the tent would be returned to me (I am very pleased to report that my tent is now fully repaired and back with me - I found MSR's repair & warranty procedure to be pretty impressive tbf!!!) and so I had needed to make alternative accommodation-arrangements for this trip, which was probably wise anyway, considering it was the middle of November, which can bring notoriously wild weather to this far flung corner on the NW coast of Scotland and so I had decided to book into a mountain hut for the week, which would serve as a base for my time spent here in Assynt... Having arrived at the hut the night prior after making the 8-hour drive from my home in Yorkshire, I woke up early, anticipating the day... A short drive from the hut took me to the small parking area which marks the start of the walk of the Quinag. The Quinag is under the stewardship of the John Muir Trust, it is an amazingly complex and varied mountain which consists of three summits - Spidean Coinich (764m), Sail Gorm (764m) & Sail Gharbh (808m), all of which attain Corbett status.

Contrary to the weather forecast it was dark, wet and gloomy when I arrived but I remained hopeful that the weather would lift... I crossed the road to the start of the walk and to a well-made path which leads you through a boggy section before arriving at the foot of the east ridge of the first of the three Corbetts, Spidean Coinich, where a very stony, but steady ascent has you eventually reach the summit, which is marked by cairns. Upon arriving at the summit, the weather started to clear, offering the most beautiful glimpses of the majestic and otherworldly landscape surrounding me...I felt so incredibly happy and grateful to be back here... I was 'home' again... Continuing to follow the ridge, there is a sharp and rocky descent to a grassy bealach with a tiny lochan before a climb up to the north top of Spidean Coinich...

From here, the ridge narrows further before another very steep descent down to Bealach a Chornaidh... then another steep ascent has you meet the junction of Quinag's ridges where you, once again, descend to another bealach before taking on the climb out to Sail Gorm which offers panoramic views out to the coastline and to the Tolkienesque peaks of Sutherland... just magic. I retraced my steps back to the junction at the bealach before taking on the third and final Corbett of the day, Sail Gharbh, before returning to the same bealach for the final descent back down to the car, but not before spending some time marvelling at the sight of the stunning Spindean Coinich and Lochan Bealach Cornaidh below...

I made sure to leave a donation to the John Muir Trust in the donation box before leaving the car park and returning to the mountain hut for the evening. Each evening would turn out to be similar on this trip - slow, simple and quiet - which as it turns out, was just what I needed, I would shower, cook for myself, check various weather resources before making a loose plan for the next day, I would then spend some time reading before taking myself off to bed for the evening...


7th November - Stac Pollaidh

Distance

2.75 miles/ 4.5km

Terrain

Excellent mountain path, I did not take in the true summit which is considered a Grade 3 scramble

Start/ Finish

Navigation

Again, as would become daily routine on this trip, I would check the various weather forecasts whilst enjoying my morning coffee... Today I had been promised a day of two halves, the morning would be dark, wet and extremely windy but there was promise of the weather clearing in the afternoon and so I decided to enjoy a slow morning in the mountain hut before heading over to hike Stac Polly in the afternoon. I made a last-minute decision to pop over to Ullapool before my hike as I had felt quite cold on the mountain yesterday, which is unlike me, I am usually an 'out in leggings in all-seasons' kind of girl, I mean, what can I say - maybe I am starting to feel the cold more in my old age?! I headed over to Ullapool Outdoors where I had last visited whilst on the Cape Wrath Trail and decided to pick up some hiking trousers, after little deliberation, I went for the Mountain Equipment Chamois Trouser, believe it or not, this is the first pair of actual hiking trousers that I have ever owned, usually opting to wear any old pair of yoga leggings, I had always quite liked the fact that my leggings were so versatile and simple, that I could wear them in all scenarios, whether on a mountain, practicing yoga or just chilling at home but alas, we roll... new trousers in hand, I returned to my car and topped up on diesel before driving over to the car park which marks the start of the walk to Stac Pollaidh...

As forecast, the cold, wet, dreary morning gave way to the most beautiful of afternoons, the autumn sun served to illuminate the burned orange landscape surrounding me, it was 2pm when I had arrived at the car park and so I knew that I didn't have much sun or daylight left to play with and so I chose to take the usual Stac Pollaidh circuit (as described in the route on WalkHighlands) in reverse so that I could witness the face of this spectacular little mountain in all of its autumnal glory, whilst I still had daylight...

Crossing the road from the car park, the path initially climbs uphill through woodland, as I emerged from the woodland to open moorland, there stood directly in front of me was a huge stag, as if to welcome me into this majestic landscape. Since I was doing the usual route in reverse, I had a small amount of bog-hopping before arriving at the rear base of the mountain, I then made my way up to the high point at the eastern end of the ridge, the 'true summit' actually being the high point on the western side of the ridge. The views here were quite simply breath-taking... Although the weather had changed some by the time I reached the high point on the eastern side, probably as sunset was shortly approaching, but the wind was also howling and the rock was still wet from this morning's onslaught and so I decided not to take a chance at the 'true-summit' today, I would save that for a later date... It would give me an excuse, not that I will ever need one, to return to this incredible place one day in the future...


8th November - Suilven

Distance

12.5 miles / 20km

Terrain

Good tracks and hill paths but steep climb to the ridge, very simple scrambling on the ridge

Start/ Finish

Navigation

I could see the mighty Suilven from the window of the mountain hut, the iconic mountain pretty much dominates the entire landscape here in Assynt and so it's no surprise really... Suilven, who I now affectionately call 'Sully', was one of the mountains I had been excited about the most, I had wanted to climb this mountain for as long as I can remember and today would be the day!!! Since I had received my tent back from MSR a couple of weeks prior to my departure up to Scotland, it had been my intention to make this route an overnighter also incorporating Canisp and so I had been trying to hold out for a stable weather window, however, the forecast just didn't seem to be allowing, whilst the weather was due to be fairly settled through the day today, the wind was due to come in overnight and it looked as though it could potentially be bringing a storm with it... I soon realised that this could actually be last decent opportunity to climb Sully during my time here and so I decided that I'd do the out and back route as a day hike, rather than the overnighter that I had hoped for (just one more excuse to return in the future, eh!)... I arrived at the parking area at Glencanisp Lodge at around 8am as this was a fairly long route of around 12.5 miles and of course the sun would be setting again at around 4.30pm....

I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of the stunning long walk into the mountain, I called in at Suileg bothy, which is just a little off the main path for a quick peek, just as I was approaching the bothy I noticed two figures crouched down outside, as I got closer, I saw that it was two ladies brushing their teeth, I felt slightly rude for having interrupted their morning routine, I apologised and said that I had only come for a quick look and that I would be gone in no time, Suileg is a fairly large bothy with 2 rooms and sleeps around 8 people (the below 3 photos are taken from the MBA website since I hadn't felt comfortable taking photos whilst the ladies were using the bothy)....

NB - I am very proud to say that I am a member of the Mountain Bothy Association, you can become a member too, just click here. If you do choose to use or visit one of these incredibly special places, then please ensure that you are following the Bothy Code at all times and please do also consider becoming a member of the MBA or just leaving a one-off donation as a thanks for your time spent in a bothy.


After a quick peek at the bothy and a coffee break, I continued along the trail which offered the most stunning views of Sully and its neighbour, Canisp, basking in the the morning's autumn sun...

At a junction in the trail, the path then heads directly towards the mighty Sully, it's looming shape seems almost impossible to climb from this perspective, also knowing the fact that you climb directly up the gully toward the centre of the mountain and then top out on the ridge can seem quite intimidating, however, when you approach closer, you soon realise that it is just a very steep walk, that requires some care and attention...

The views upon reaching the ridge were quite simply otherwordly, I couldn't contain my excitement as I continued to head along the ridge toward the great domed summit of Caisteal Liath which stands at 731 metres and is the true summit of my now beloved Sully.... The views from here looking back along the ridge to the spire of Meall Meadhonach, again, were just majestic! The wind hadn't been so bothersome down at lower level, but it was around 40mph up on the ridge so I didn't, unfortunately, stick around for too long before returning back to my car by the same route... This day had truly been everything that I had ever hoped for and more, my cup felt completely full and I just felt so incredibly grateful...


9th-11th November - Storm & Hurricane Force Winds

The next 3 days would see me hunkered down in the mountain hut due to the weather... With storm and hurricane force winds forecast up on the tops and gale force winds forecast at lower levels... I must have checked the weather a million times over like a woman possessed during these 3 days, checking various different weather forecasts in a hope that the one I had just checked might be incorrect or that there might be some variation... The storm did not let up, I swore I even witnessed the roof of the mountain hut swaying in the wind at one point...

However, these 3 days forced me to slow down, forced me to enjoy even more of a slower pace, I generally spent my days reading, I had called into Ullapool on one of the days for more groceries and popped in at The Ullapool Bookshop whilst there and couldn't help but pick up a copy of Between Mountain and Sea: Poems from Assynt by Noman MacCaig. I always try and make an effort to support as many local businesses as possible when I am staying in an area, as my appreciation to that community for my time spent there.


12th November - Cùl Mòr

Distance

8.5 miles/ 13.5km

Terrain

Good stalkers path at the beginning of the approach, some boggy sections and some pathless terrain, a short boulderfield on the approach to the summit

Start/ Finish

Navigation

I had been due to make the 8 hour drive back down to my home in Yorkshire first thing this morning, however, the forecast was promising a fairly settled morning and so I decided that I would try and have just one last dance with the mountains of Assynt before my departure, only then would I make the drive back down home... My target for the day would be Cùl Mòr, which was both fairly close to the hut that I had been staying in and was also en-route back home and so I packed the car and headed to the layby at the start of the walk, hoping for a safe passage weather-wise, after the storm that had relentlessly and battered the hut for the last 3 days... A long approach from the start point of the walk took me through more of the stunning burned orange moorland of Assynt...

Eventually a cairn marks the spot where I would turn up the south-east shoulder of the mountain, offering the most amazing views back over to Sully, it is then a steep ascent up the north-east ridge of the mountain before a short section through a boulder field, before the summit plateau is reached. I had been fairly lucky with the weather but once again, the wind was high on the summit and the clag soon came in offering very little visibility for the descent back down to the car. I followed the WalkHighlands route, which has you continue west down the ridge before making the largely pathless descent, which has you picking your own way down, over broken and craggy ground, before eventually joining the same stalker's path back down to the car... Cùl Mòr is such a spectacular little mountain, the walk had come recommend to me by the custodian of the mountain hut and I can only, whole-heartedly, pass that recommendation on to you - it makes for a fantastically varied little mountain day and in the words of Norman MacCaig -


'And God was Mozart when he wrote Cùl Mòr'


Once again, this trip just served to strengthen my love and bond for the Scottish Highlands, the place where I feel most alive, most at peace and most happy...


I will leave you with these fitting words from Norman MacCaig -


Who owns this landscape?

Has owning anything to do with love?

For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human we even have quarrels. -

When I intrude too confidently it rebuffs me with a wind like hand

or puts in my way a quaking bog or a loch where no loch should be...

I can't pretend it gets sick for me in my absence, though I get sick for it. Yet I love it with special gratitude, since it sends me no letters, is never jealous and, expecting nothing from me, gets nothing but cigarette packets and footprints...


Norman MacCaig

'A man in Assynt' - Between Mountain and Sea - Poems from Assynt


Until next time, Scotland xxx

Miss you already

Follow my adventures live over on my Instagram @hiker_heather


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