Saturday, 9 January 2016

Little Auks/Big Storms/Deep Caves/High Waves: Braving the Weather in Coigach & Assynt


Through December & the start of January, every mountain I’d been near was cloud-veiled & every stretch of coast storm-lashed: getting interesting days out had become a test of ingenuity. But among the riches of Coigach & Assynt, an old adage - 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes' - began to ring true. This stormy landscape was full of intriguing possibilities. For instance, the weather drove me to investigate Assynt from the inside, via an incredible labyrinth of tunnels & chambers through the mountains (here's my rope dangling from the tiny portal-to-the-outside-world I'd soon climb back through)...
...And wildlife that wouldn’t usually be here was seeking shelter from fierce N Atlantic weather. In the trip's only - very brief - still spell, being surrounded by a mini-flotilla of little auks by the island of Tanera Beg was a great highlight (especially since they looked to be in good enough shape to make their way back to feeding grounds off Scandinavia)…
  I arrived in Achiltibuie on New Year’s Day, staying not in the bivi bag but in the comfort of the Salmon Fishers’ Bothy on Badentarbat Bay. Even indoors, the sound of the storm-winds at night was phenomenal. And the frayed clouds that come with strong wind lent plenty of atmosphere to the low sun’s light, so it didn’t take long to be reminded of this spot's appeal (this is the view from near the door):
On one drive up to the bothy (here it is, in shot) I even had to stop for ringed plovers to cross the road:
Throughout the stay, the last sun of the day, setting over the sea, usually managed to peer beneath the land's thick cloud cover, lighting up curlews in flight…
…and illuminating fragments of the dark & windswept landscape…
So I spent much of this trip walking to out-of-the-way places & hanging around with books as the light changed & the weather flew by. After all (as I’ll explain in the next post), recent developments mean I have a lot of thinking to do.

On the first day, with only the smallest hills out of the cloud & the wind above 80mph, I headed to the top of Stac Pollaidh & made the western end of the mountain my office. With back to the wind & sheltered by sandstone, I sat looking out over the Minch, reading an extraordinary work of Scottish history, James Hunter’s On The Other Side of Sorrow (a must-read for anyone who loves Scottish landscape & communities; in fact, I feel quite ashamed I hadn't read it before - thanks to Douglas Griffin for alerting me to it). Slowly, the light turned from blue-grey to golden…
Scraps of cloud passed, as the colours changed in the sky above Suilven & Quinag:
When the light was gone completely, I donned my headtorch & headed down.
 
Next day, I used the same tactic, spending hours over a dramatic but short & undemanding trip (this was the only day I’ve ever seen a mountain weather forecast list a speed of over 150 mph!). I headed to Sandwood Bay, with books. One of the most famous stretches of coastline in Britain, this is just five miles on foot from tiny Oldshoremore village (where gulls, the specks in this pic, seem to outnumber people 100/1)…
Today both the beach & the headlands were raging, creatureless, alien-feeling worlds. The offshore wind whipped the wavecrests & the dunes until it was impossible to tell which projectiles were grains of sand & which driven rain: both came from the same angle. I’d put my rucksack down to take photos, and within minutes it was just a tiny dune, windward side buried deep. The only place to settle & read was in a bothy N of the bay, but the sea was too much of a spectacle for that to feel appropriate. Listen to this:
As on the previous day, I waited until the light failed before turning round & beginning the walk back. Tonight, the rain that lashed my face was bright-white in the torch beam, making for an atmospheric nightwalk.

The next day’s weather was more of the same. Fortunately, Assynt is a wonderland not just for walkers, climbers & kayakers, but also for a few pursuits less likely to be rendered suicidal by 100mph winds. This is when I began to consider exploring the mountains from the inside. Over the last couple of years I’ve added a few things to the pack I carry on days out. One is a 575 lumen headtorch. This is among the best buys I’ve ever made: it’s what makes me comfortable wandering the hills at night or staying out at sea to watch sunsets among islands before crossing back. Such a torch opens up the winter like nothing else. The headtorch was pricey but money far better spent than on an expensive bit of clothing. Other, more recent, additions are a very light helmet and a short (75ft) rope. Between them these three things add just 1kg to my pack & make all kinds of wonderful places more safely accessible.

They’d been incredibly handy over Christmas in Wales (though I didn’t have the helmet – borrowed a generic yellow workman’s one instead). I’d planned to spend a night or two in Snowdonia while hosted by the Welsh in-laws. The combination of fog, wind & relentless rain prevented that. The plan I hatched involved persuading my father in law (local mayor, councillor & stone-mason, but also accomplished climber & prodigious quarry botherer) down into the abandoned slate mines beneath Moelwyn Mawr & Moel-yr-Hydd. Here we could explore the mountains, gaining slanted perspectives on their character, without wind or rain ever making life uncomfortable. We’d head down the mine together, but he’d resurface alone, leaving me for an overnight stay amidst the slate.

We parked near Blaneau Ffestiniog, painted here by Moira Huntly:
Then, kitted up, headed uphill:
 
There are two mines here. The biggest, with around 60km of tunnels is Cwmorthin (where we spent a day four years ago) but today we’d head through the 20+km of Wrysgan where slate was mined for roofs & headstones from the 1830s to the 1950s. We entered via a tunnel low on the West of the mountain…
 
…and made our way gradually up the mine’s 7+ levels, through several huge chambers. Only one section of this circuit requires a rope (someone has kindly left one in situ)...
…but this trip was also about exploring what lies beyond the relatively straightforward route from one adit (miner-speak for entrance/exit) to the other, so we clambered through rockfalls, using the rope to lift gear past tricky climbs. 
After we reached the top. I headed back through the tunnels, exploring the less-accessible eastern side of the mines, before setting up camp and settling down with two books, Sarah Howe’s, Loop of Jade & Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress, both utterly absorbing. This was a wonderful, relaxed night but far from silent: during this spell of flood & spate, the mine was run through by dozens of streams & waterfalls, the layered sounds of which were positively symphonic. 

Up in Assynt I was near not to mines but to great examples of their natural equivalent: long, intricate limestone caves. Assynt is a geological extravaganza. It has everything from meteor strikes (at Clachtoll) to weird 700m monoliths of Torridonian Sandstone (like Suilven) towering over the landscape’s skeleton of primal lewisian gneiss which, thanks to sparse vegetation and even sparser population, shows through what little plant/soil skin is stretched across it. Small regions of limestone make for rich emerald isles in the sea of grey & brown, but also for areas of great underground complexity.

I still hadn’t really decided what I’d end up doing when I drove to Inchnadamph. I headed up towards the slopes of Breabag & Conival wondering whether the former, only 815m high, might clear. It didn’t. But I’d chosen this area because of the limestone. That soft rock makes the valley I headed up really weird in flood conditions. There are vigorous springs everywhere, so that deep, fast rivers appear from cliff faces or bubble up from the grass: it’s like a child has drawn an impossible landscape. Only rain stopped me taking pics. In strange contrast - in the middle of the wettest period in recent British history - the large river-bed I headed up was entirely dry (an illustration of how a river bores down through limestone, finding new routes century by century, and transforming the landscape):
 ...From the place I entered the mountain I could look back to Beinn an Fhuarain (the hill in the pic above), which contains the area’s most famous caves, where enormous quantities of bone - including wolf, lynx & polar bear - have been found. 

I looped a rope round a rock by a hole in the riverbed & lowered myself down. This cave begins with some gentle descent through beautiful, intricately weathered rock…
 ….before a very narrow passage plunges steeply down through several more metres of lovely golden stone (in writing this description, I realised how much I want to learn more geology: why is this so yellow?)…
This drops into a large chamber from which several further chambers open out, with plenty of clambering to do between different levels of the cave. Where water doesn’t flow, walls are caked with thick brown silt. Sometimes the passages are huge (although, caving alone, I'm afraid it's tough to provide any sense of scale)…
…but at others, it’s hand & knees stuff (or, when too narrow for that, the limbless cave squirm).
There’s an extraordinary stillness to a cave as dry & drip free as this: the tunnels were close to silent in contrast to the raging weather outside. Being alone in a large cave system is always magical & restful (except, I guess, if you're claustrophobic…). I sat & finished The Anchoress, started underground in Wrysgan: few books could add more atmosphere to time enclosed in a silent chamber of rock.

Parts of this labyrinth do have rivers running through them…
After edging up to a deep pit (for which I wished I had a second rope) I turned back & took my second reading stop on a ledge above a flowing brook. 
By now it'd be dark outside, so there was no urgent imperative to head up. But eventually I returned to my rope, hanging from its high hole...
...and climbed out into the Assynt night.

Overnight, things changed (a bit). Snow fell, and on higher ground it stuck. The wind continued to rage, and most peaks stayed in cloud, but towards the end of a day of writing I decided to head up Ben Mor Coigach for the sunset. I was still pessimistic as I neared the top (barely able to stand for the wind), but suddenly the cloud dispersed, and for half an hour, sunset views abounded. It was the intricate ice rime on the rocks that really made the scene (even if it compromised the footing)...
Then the views were veiled again, as quickly as they’d been revealed.

This terrible weather had made for a wonderful trip. It meant I didn’t put undue pressure on myself to spend every daylight minute outdoors, and I found new perspectives on a landscape I’ve come to know quite well. But I was still very pleased to see kayakable conditions forecast for my last morning in Achiltibuie.

I got up early, slipped the kayak down the beach by the door, and set out past the summer isles with waves, stars & lighthouses for company.
By the time the sun rose I was on the exposed & windy side of the islands. The conditions were staggeringly beautiful. Fulmars skimmed the waves, gannets spied the surface from the sky, and hundreds of gulls hung in the air before reaching for fish in waters still agitated by the memory of storms. The sounds, smells & sea-spray reminded me why kayaking is my favourite form of movement. There’s an extraordinary freedom to being out on the swell, in a pathless space, utterly alone & rocking with the sea’s surface in a way your body will suddenly recall in the still of the night. There's also no better way of seeing wildlife: otters, dolphins & seabirds all treat a kayak as an object of curiosity. (And it's a far less inaccessible pursuit than many people seem to assume.)

The moving water made it almost impossible to take pictures effectively (especially once my hands were well & truly numb thanks to the predawn wind) so I didn’t get the camera out much at first, but couldn’t resist a bad photo when, minutes before dawn, a flock of geese passed the most picturesque of the local skerries. I've put this awful photo in, since I think it captures the atmosphere more than the better ones:
Gradually, conditions calmed & I could get the camera out more often, but that first half hour – beyond the islands, rolling with the waves – had been the atmospheric highlight. The dawn didn’t disappoint…
As the sea calmed, the fulmars & gannets must have moved offshore, while the occasional porpoise fin & numerous black guillemots became evident among the waves...
...particularly when the tysties' white winter feathers caught the early sun:
I paddled into the large bay that makes up the western edge of Tanera Beg & stopped for a while, bobbing about on what was left of the waves. Suddenly, something really magical happened. A tiny head popped up on my right, metres from the kayak, then another, then a third on my left...
The water droplet on this bird's back should help give a sense of how diminutive it is. I’d never seen a little auk, but have been fascinated by these tiny arctic-breeding seabirds since reading about them in Frank Fraser Darling many years ago. I’d heard that up to a hundred had recently been blown from their breeding grounds off Scandinavia onto the East coast, some struggling to deal with the storms. And just the previous day I’d read a wonderful post on the Rain Geese & Selkies blog that featured them. But I hadn’t heard of little auk sightings on the West coast – still less did I expect to see any. Now I was in the utterly ridiculous position of being surrounded by these rarely-spotted ocean sparrows – looking healthy & energetic rather than storm-worn & starved. In childish excitement, I simply didn’t know what to do with myself – every second spent looking in one direction seemed like missing out on what was going on in the other. They never stayed long on the surface, and although three was the most I saw at the same time, I’m pretty sure there were more (I'd guess five). They continued to reappear for two or three minutes, before they were gone as suddenly as they’d arrived, leaving me wondering whether I’d really just seen these utterly delightful creatures. (Also wondering whether it was pure coincidence that they surfaced so close to me, or whether they're on record as investigating small boats - anyone know?)
Leaving, just when the weather had turned, and after only a four-hour sample of the sea, couldn’t have been more of a wrench. But leaving with such a hunger to be back WILL ensure I make the effort soon (as the snow on the hills deepens, the days lengthen, and the seabirds' year continues to turn...). After all, I've still only given my new winter gear the briefest run outs on afternoons in the hills snatched from days at work... 

 ...And I've a long kayak trip planned that means I need plenty of hours practice on the water...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for 'The other side of sorrow' , great book

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