Friday, 3 January 2014

All Around Assynt: September 2013

By September 2013, Cul Mor and Cul Beg were two of the only Assynt mountains I hadn't climbed, and I'd been attempting to get Ben up to Assynt without success (due to illness, weather and the lures of Torridon) for two years. We parked near the bottom of Cul Beg leaving the decision of which mountain to climb till later. The more formidable of the two - the fortress of Assynt, Cul Mor - was soon drawing us in... we began to make our way across the glen towards it. After the first couple of miles this trip was all across pathless, rough terrain so was quite slow going, but all the more glorious for that sense of inaccessibility.

Some of the spots along the way, where flat land turns into serene lochans, would have made great spots to picnic on our game pies from the House of Bruar but time was of the essence...
At the first crossing (the river that feeds the above loch) I decided not to take risks with the SLR by leaping between rocks, so just waded through, the price to pay being cold wet boots for the rest of the trip (it seemed like a small cost at the time). We then spiralled up Cul Mor's southern and eastern flanks, which felt superbly remote before putting our bivis down on a high shoulder, leaving just enough time before dark to head to the top.
There wasn't much of a sunset due to the thick grey cloud, but the views from here were still spectacular.

Here's Ben looking down at Cul Beg:
It was evident that cloud, with rain, would soon close in and that finding the bivis might not be easy in the dark. So we decided not to do Cul Mor's other peaks that evening. After we'd made that decision, I climbed down a little to take some photos, leaving Ben perched on the top (above). I soon realised that the other peaks weren't as distant as they'd looked and ran across to get some photos to the north (including Suilven in the rain) and then up the north east ridge, hoping that Ben would never find out how far I'd gone. After a while I heard him shouting that we should go back to camp.
He didn't seem all that impressed when, after I shouted back, he looked across to see me at least 15 minutes of steep descent and ascent away. We did make it back, just as it got really dark, and had a drizzly evening with appropriate accompaniment: cask strength Caol Ila and Heaney's Beowulf.    
    Next morning the top of Cul Mor was engulfed in cloud. We were just below the cloud line so got a nice, though drab dawn.

We decided to make for Cul Beg, hoping that the cloud would lift before we got there. The walk across was beautiful but tough going. By the time we reached the bottom the hill fog showed no sign of shifting. We'd been caught in a couple of sharp showers and more threatened. Our choice was whether to try Cul Beg anyway, aware that there might not be views, or whether to head down the long glen and up Stac Pollaidh, which was low enough to evade the cloud. We chose, decisively, the latter, but somehow ended up doing the former: one of those occasions when (wise) feet overrule (foolish) brain.
     We were extraordinarily lucky. Cul Beg was out of the cloud for about half an hour all day, which happened to be the half hour we were at the top. The climb was hard work, given that this isn't actually a very big mountain, but the views were stunning.  
The broken cloud made this a great place to watch patterns of sunlight pass across the Assynt hills and Loch Sionascaig, with different rivers and rocks catching the light as the clouds moved:

 As the cloud, along with rain and hail closed back in, we headed down steep and slippery hillsides towards the road, with plenty of time to drive (yet further) north during the day.
     The weather had well and truly closed in, so we took the 'wee mad road' towards Inverkirkaig without making any decisions about where to spend the night. This was Ben's first trip along this eccentric road, which sometimes plunges almost into the sea and offers a great sense of Assynt (as well as lots of access points for kayaking out to beautiful little islands). This tiny one-track road also boasts Britain's most remote bookshop, the wonderful Achins, so we popped in there for coffee, cake and an up-to-date weather forecast. The cake was great, the forecast wasn't. But a short break in the cloud was predicted for the next morning, and we soon realised that, via a longer walk in than the usual one, Suilven - Britain's most distinctive mountain - was accessible from the back door of Achins. We wandered up the glen, past the spectacular falls of kirkaig (which never look as big in photos as they really are) and towards the lochs at the head of the river.
This is a beautiful river, surrounded by mixed deciduous woodland which must be full of unusual birdlife in spring, and the loch-smattered plateau above would have provided superb views had the cloud been higher. We camped by a sandy beach on the kirkaig side of Fionn Loch. Next morning we rounded the loch, and headed across very boggy ground towards the bottom of Suilven. With the sun still low, a deer very obligingly posed in the one point where it would stand out against the skyline:
The mountain was still in cloud, but we were optimistic, because the rest of Assynt was soon beautifully sunny.
There's a wonderfully 'miniature' feel to this landscape (captured acutely in lots of Norman MacCaig's poetry: he discusses it in prose in a great film called 'A Man in My Position' available here)

The walk in was indeed long and boggy, taking more time than we'd expected, but by the time we were craning our necks to look vertically up at Suilven the weather was as fine as could be, all the cloud lifted. The sun was out, the wind was down and the Met Office's dire warnings were briefly flouted.

 Heading straight up the side of Suilven the views across Assynt opened up still further

Once we reached the ridge, there were views of Canisp too:
And views that showed the precipitous nature of what we were climbing up. By this stage, Norman McCaig's 'Climbing Suilven' was definitely ringing true:

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
It's silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me

And we reached the top just before the weather remembered what it was supposed to be doing. The sun of the previous hour was gradually banished and the lochs gradually began to turn from silver crinkled paper to a flat leaden grey.

By the time we were ready to go down Suilven was being engulfed in cloud once again. It appeared once or twice more in the time it took us to walk back
and there were still some impressive atmospheric effects as the sun caught the bottom of clouds and brought out the steely rock that's always so close to the surface in Assynt.

We'd left our equipment where we'd camped...
...and Ben, reprobate that he is, needed his mid-day whisky before we packed up, Suilven appearing one last time to oblige for the photo.

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