My TGO Challenge friends David and Sue had agreed to join me on my bid to tackle the Fisherfields, Fannichs and any other nearby hills we had time for in a year none of us could do the Scottish Backpacking Challenge. And 2013 was it. Given a choice of months we chose June in the hope of better weather and to avoid the worst of the dreaded wee midges.
Day 1 Fionn Bheinn
Our previous two Challenges in May 2011 and 2012 had incorporated 100mph winds, lots of late snow, severe floods and Scotland’s wettest year on record; our Paramos had rarely come off!
I picked up my friend David from Ayrshire prior to going to Newtonmore for a night and grabbing Sue from her hostel there. With me I had a selection of gear from Castleberg Outdoors including two daysacks which we were eager to try on the hills, a Vaude Brenta 25 and a Fjallraven Bergen 30. Our drive up to Achnasheen from Newtonmore was only a couple of hours so we were ready to hit the hill just before midday. On this day I chose to try out the Vaude Brenta alongside my Salomon Light Shorts, Hanwag Tatra Walking Boots and Icebreaker layers as it was grey but mild and mostly dry.
Our walk from Achnasheen up the burn ‘Allt Achadh na Sine’ and round into the corrie between Creag nan Laogh and on to the summit of Fionn Bheinn was an easy if rather laborious plod of around two hours from bottom to top. If you wanted to go for it the ground is easy underfoot and would make for a good fell running hill, although perhaps a tad boggy at times! In fact my indispensable Black Diamond Trail Shock Trekking Poles are great for rough boggy ground (you can measure how deep the bog is!) as well as down hills. And although it is not a terribly inspiring Munro it is blessed with good views. Fortunately, despite low cloud to the East, we had clear, albeit grey, panoramas west which opened up as we reached the summit.
Meanwhile Sue was trying out her new Inov-8 Roclite Boots with the Salomon Trail gaiters – which she had previously only used on her trail shoes - and soon found out that the two do not combine well. The boot's higher ankle cuff makes the gaiters pull up onto you midsole. However, once the gaiters were removed she found the boots very comfortable and light with no bother on rough ground, although the laces do have a slight tendency to loosen. Now feeling light footed having accomplished our warm up hill of the trip we descended into the Eastern murk down the long E ridge of Fionn Bheinn before emerging onto an initially not so obvious path that goes around its flank and back down towards Achnasheen.
I was very pleased with my choice of gear which was easy and light to wear. The Vaude Brenta pack with my waterproofs, snacks and safety kit, etc was very comfortable. BUT the hose exit was too narrow for my water platypus as I use a cap to stop leaks or getting bits on the mouthpiece as well as an insulating hose. I had quite a job shoving it through! The insulating hose most folk won’t use but I put one on for winter and it is too much hassle to remove, so this was a bit squashed but not really an issue compared with the cap. Otherwise the easily adjustable mesh back using the Aeroflex Easy Adjust system meant I did not get too hot and the straps and are well designed to ensure you can get a good fit on the shoulders, hip and length. My only other grouch was that the hip pockets are not expandable, are quite small and sit a bit too far back to be easily accessed; a pity as the other mesh pockets and lid pockets are a good size and are easy to use. I would also have liked a small key fob in one of the pockets as I am paranoid about losing my car keys in the middle of nowhere! But I liked this rucksack which balances well and I could, if I wished, easily fit my Digital SLR camera in the top pocket in a drybag if the weather changed. To end the day we wended our way to Cromasaig B&B where we were treated to tea and cakes before topping up further at the Whistle Stop Café in Kinlochewe in anticipation of some big hill days ahead.
Day 2 The Fisherfields Backpack part 1
After loading ourselves with further calories, a hearty breakfast, Tom the owner kindly gave us a lift to Incheril so I could leave my car safely at the B&B for a couple of days and we could avoid an unnecessary road walk. Now loaded down with full backpacks ready for a couple of nights camping we started out in glorious sunshine. We each try and minimise our weight and so have been slowly been replacing older heavier gear with lighter products as money or wear and tear dictates whether it be the rucksack itself or main items such as sleeping bags, tents,insulation and cooking equipment. It is realising you don't need this, that and the other, just in case and quite often you only need very small quantities of things so grabbing that tiny sample tube of toothpaste or using a small storage bottle for a bit of soap makes far more sense and it can be topped up again and again.There are so many lightweight products out there and they don't have to be expensive. It was a glorious start.
The initial walk up to the Heights of Kinlochewe offers a superb view looking back at Beinn Eighe.
Sue and David were both very comfortable in their new and old versions of the Innov-8 Roclite boots. And although my Hanwag boots are more substantial they are great on trail, bog or rock and would certainly get put to the test later that day.
The route from Incheril does involve a long walk in and it took us some 5 hours to reach the summit of our first Munro of the day, especially as once we left the path the ground underfoot became pretty rough going. And with it being such a lovely day we were not exactly rushing! The views were superb, especially over to Slioch and Lochan Fada.
The ascent of the first Munro, Beinn Tarsuinn, also meant we could have a break from our big packs as it was an out and back summit from Bealach Odhar before continuing on our round. Armed with Sil packs David offered to take the water & first aid kit on this occasion so we could enjoy the slabby climb up.
The views from the summit are stunning on a good day and I was glad to be wearing my Salomon shorts and Icebreaker T-shirt as it was pretty warm. The Merino wool of the Icebreaker layers offer great temperature control as well the fact they don’t really smell after a hard day on the hill. Add to that a Jack Wolfskin cap to keep the sun out of my eyes and I was happy!
And to the west the views to the cliffs of Beinn Lair and beyond to the Torridon Hills were stunning.
As were the views to the NE of our next Fisherfield Hills of the day, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Sgurr Ban and the demoted Munro right out at the end, Beinn a' Chlaidheimh (now a Corbett but worth doing whether you’re a Munro bagger or not).
Having rescued our backpacks from the col and bumped into a few other folk enjoying the amazing weather we set off up the initially steep and slightly scrabbly and then blocky ridge to the summit of Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair.
Which had a rather steep descent on the other side where our poles definitely had their use!
Once down and on our way up Sgurr Ban we realised time was getting on and we hadn’t even had lunch so took the time to stop, enjoy the views and look back at what we had just come down, the faint line straight down through the scree fairly obvious. So much easier if you’re not carrying your camping gear – but we were!
Then it was on to Sgurr Ban with superb views over its bouldery summit to the fine looking Corbett Beinn Dearg Mor.
But our descent now involved the long and arduous quartzite boulder field that goes on for 1km across with a 330m drop in height! I was very glad that I had my sturdy Hanwag boots on for this section whilst carrying a full pack as they give enough ankle support to feel quite stable and have surprisingly good grip. If we had being coming from the other direction (and on a clear day) there is a grassier and much easier route between Sgurr Ban’s N and NE ridges on the steeper ground after skirting under the boulder field but this is not obvious from above when coming down, and naturally we chose the least severe contours. As it happened not such a good idea on this occasion but the map gives no indication of this incredibly blocky ground!
But the views to our last hill of the day, Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, were very clear with An Teallach just hiding under a cloud in the background.
The rock here is interesting with outcrops of sandstone poking through the quartzite. We found one such outcrop near the col, Am Briseadh, and left our big packs again whilst David and I used our Sil packs for odds and ends to go the next summit. Our plan was then to return to the col, pick up our packs and descend to Loch a Bhrisidh to camp.
Sue travelled light to the summit across an almost moonscape like landscape at times, which also had some wonderful well hidden camping spots, albeit not all with water.
But then we disappeared into the murk for a while and despite going out to the northern end beyond the summit in the hope of views over to An Teallach the cloud persisted on the top.
Once we popped out of the cloud and had Loch a Bhrisidh in our views we saw, to our horror, that the area on which we had hoped to camp now had several other tents! And not much room for us without feeling like we were on a campsite. We ummed and ahhed then, as the forecast was good, decided to stay near the small lochans on the col.
Finding a small grassy patch big enough for all our tents and happy to boil up the water there we were able to cook up our dehydrated meals and enjoy wonderful evening light on Sgurr Bann’s boulder field, the one we had probably said a few choice words about just hours before!
Day 3 The Fisherfields Backpack part 2
Early morning light had us awake although I buried my head in my down sleeping bag for some time! But the urge to look outside and explore the hill’s amenities eventually had me out.
So to a loo with a view!
It was still mixed clag by the time we packed up our tents, having mopped off as much of the fine mist as we could, and headed down to Loch Brisidh. We were glad our camp had been slightly higher than the tents we had seen the night before as the cloud was only just clearing at 550m.
Our route down to Gleann na Muice was pleasant enough and it was fairly easy to contour across and down to the river and the head of the Glen. Above a herd of red deer took fright, after their initial curiosity, and disappeared over the lower slopes of Sgurr Ban. Trekking poles are a definite benefit on this kind of terrain as it is just rough heather and rock. The view straight down Gleann na Muice to An Teallach with its lifting bank of cloud was superb.
And once at the river we were able to enjoy the clear waters for a few minutes before the beginning of our next ascent.
To ascend our next Munro, A’ Mhaighdean (pronounced A’ Vatyin), which is purported to be the most remote Munro of them all, we had chosen a steep grassy route under the crags of Stac a’ Chaorruinn. On the way we passed an amazing erratic boulder…
…and a lone red deer glanced down at us from the col of Pollan na Muice.
The steep grassy slopes up were just that – steep! But not difficult although they would be in soft snow.
They soon spat us out into a level area from which is was short work to clamber up past some old snow onto the more gentle slopes of A’ Mhaighdean above where we passed a wee frog; there were frogs everywhere and on several occasions we had been frightened of creating frog kebabs with our sticks.
With a gentle stroll to the top we were met with one of the best views you could have on such a lovely day in NW Scotland! The view to the West was stupendous and one could easily imagine eagles soaring here.
To the South West were the superb cliffs of Beinn Lair
To the South Lochan Fada, Slioch and the Torridon hills beyond
And to the North An Teallach.
One could linger here for many hours on such a perfect day but we still had Ruadh Stac Mor ahead and a long walk to Letterewe and Loch Maree. We sauntered down the easy slopes towards the col with continued excellent views to the west.
At the col we deposited our big sacks and used a couple of Sil sacks to pop in water and a snack for the top of Ruadh Stac Mor. The initial scrabble up is hideously steep and loose which is probably why I never took a photo of it! You then go onto large lumps of red sandstone but it is not too bad when dry and only takes 15 – 20 minutes to get to the top from the col at an easy pace. We were soon greeted with even wider views to the NW.
Below us lay Fuar Loch Mor, which, if we had had time, might have induced us to have had a quick cold swim to cool down as was now surprisingly hot!
As we descended down the stalker’s path from the col the NW ridge of A' Mhaighdean loomed above with some interesting scrambling possibilities – maybe another time! It is certainly suggested as a route and the main difficulties can be avoided although perhaps easier to do on a clear day. The OS 1:50 000 map just shows the ridge as being narrow whilst the Harvey's map actually shows the tower of rock as a small black circle. In these hills good navigation equipment and quality maps are paramount as is a bit of background reading if you have the time. Ensuring you have some sort of schedule with a backup foul weather option is important as narrow ridges can become lethal in strong winds, bogs can become impossible swamps in heavy rain and even tiny burns can become raging torrents and require massive detours. And I wouldn't fancy crossing the Causeway, which was still to come, in a full Gale either - you'd probably drown! Primarily good navigation, hill experience and First Aid knowledge in such remote places are key; the mapping is not always as detailed and help is a long way away.
So dreams of the ridge aside we opted for a late lunch instead, taking the opportunity to dry out our tents and dip our feet in the cool waters of the Allt Brutbach an Easain (or, in simpler terms, the burn that leads down to Dubh Loch!).
Our descent now took us down a well maintained path towards Carnmore and the Causeway, the latter being exactly that – a man-made causeway to enable easy access across between Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch.
The view back to A’Mhaighdean and Dubh Loch from near Carnmore had us wanting to stop but we still had quite a way to go.
And so we crossed the Causeway, the top of Beinn Lair ahead just peaking through the cloud.
As the afternoon mooched on so did we, following the excellent track over Bealachs 'Mheinnidh' and 'nan sac'. Access up the Corbett Beinn Lair is easy from here although this time we would not be ascending it. But the views towards the Torridon Hills were lovely despite our tired feet. We kept a look out for eagles soaring in the skies but did not see any although know they are in this area. There were plenty of Skylark and Golden Plover though.
Unfortunately our tired feet were also about to get a shock as we suddenly hit several sections of improved path down to Letterewe Estate that had a horrible skiddy gravel and was just at the wrong gradient when wearing a full pack. Our hot feet were not happy and it doesn’t matter what boots you wear in those circumstances! Luckily good quality walking socks meant none of us got blisters that day.
The view down to Letterewe Estate’s main Lodge was lovely; to bring in supplies they have to use a boat from the other side. It is owned by the Fentener van Vlissingen family who consider themselves the guardian's of what is considered to be the last wilderness in Scotland and the abundance of wildlife, including rarer species, and the incredible geology certainly offer that. The Lodge looks quite a place to stay and would certainly add a tad of luxury to any walking holiday!!!
Having managed to navigate our way round the edge of the estate on vague paths we now still had quite a long way to go along Loch Maree, some 8km of rough path, to our planned overnight camp. With time ticking by we realised that to be sensible about a stop time, despite it staying light so late, we really ought to try and find somewhere sooner. We were all feeling the effects of the day’s heat and David appeared to have mild heatstroke which we did not want to make worse. So we ambled quietly along to the first stream we came to about 1.5 km south of Furnace. Below us were several old sheilings on a grassy area nearer the trees which looked like a good spot. But for the first time the wee black beasties let themselves be known – the dreaded midges had hatched! We chose instead to camp on slightly rougher ground higher up with a superb view and, perhaps, just a few less midges.
Unfortunately David really wasn’t so well by this time and was also still on a course of antibiotics which didn’t help, so with that and the midges, despite the view, we hid in our own wee one man tents to eat our various dehydrated meals or soup. We had been on the go for 13 hours.
Day 4 The Fisherfields Backpack part 3
Keen to go up Slioch on our way back to Kinlochewe I awoke at 5am in anticipation of another wonderful day as the forecast had been for settled weather all week. I peered out of my tent in horror. We were virtually in the cloud and it didn’t even look thin! Not a top in sight! With everyone whacked from the day before we decided to hold fire for an hour or two to see what happened; the idea of going up Slioch in thick cloud for the sake of it was not that appealing. And as a fairly accessible Munro from Kinlochewe we were not too worried if we did not go up it this time. It was chilly with no breeze. And we waited. Then suddenly, as if god had snapped his fingers, all the clouds rolled out to sea and the views were with us once more. Unfortunately so were the midges - in clouds!
Glad that it was still shorts weather (with insect repellent and suncream mixed in various ratios across legs, face and arms) we were off somewhat later than originally anticipated: 9am! But David was still not 100% so were now fairly sure it was mild heatstroke. Nevertheless the views were lovely and we soon had Caisteal Mor looming over us, its balanced rock poised to fall on our heads at any moment – or so it seemed.
We met a couple of slow worms en route probably very irritated to have their sunbathing disturbed!
And it was getting very hot so our pace was quite slow!
When we reached Gleann Bianasdail we had a choice – to do Slioch or not. It was such a gorgeous day that it seemed madness not too but we had also left much later than originally planned. However, as David knew he still wasn't right we decided to walk up the Gleann a bit and decide what we would all do once at a nice spot by the river.
We reached the point where the only way was 'up' and agreed that Sue and I would go up whilst David would potter at the river before going back to Kinlochewe and meeting us there. He would also see if he could book us into the bunkhouse or the hotel (to escape the midges) and at the café for tea. And so leaving our big packs in a suitably discreet place Sue and I popped a small amount of gear and our lunch in our Sil sacks and left David to enjoy the cool waters of the river. The ascent was steady and steep initially before it spits you out into the very flat bowl of Coire na Sleaghaich, which was like a gentle hidden valley compared to Slioch’s defensive looking cliffs on its NW side.
The path then goes up at a fair crack to a couple of small lochans, only one of which you can see until much higher up, but looked great for camping, if one made sure to be well away before the day walkers arrived. Then there is some horribly eroded steep rough quartzite before you find yourself suddenly popping out onto the final section of ridge with just a bit of a meander to Slioch’s summit. There is also a very convenient wee lochan on the ridge (not on the map), which a dog was already enjoying . Overall it took us two hours to the top and the views were quite simply stunning.
From the NW top, which seemed an ideal spot for lunch, there were lovely clear views out to Skye, down to Loch Maree and the smaller cool looking waters of Loch Garbhaig.
We enjoyed it for as long as we dare fully aware David was somewhere in Kinlochewe trying to find us all beds for the night! But at least we knew if he came back here on his long walk in the Autumn it was not a tricky top to do. I pottered down the NW ridge a little for some views down.
And towards Beinn Tarsuinn and the hills we had climbed on the first Fisherfield day.
On the way down a wee seat offered a pleasant break which Sue said was very comfortable!
Back at our packs I went and washed my feet in cool waters as I was getting a small blister on my toe, mainly because my feet were cooking with the heat - whether or not anything could help in this temperature I was not sure but I could have done with some anti-chafe stick, instead I stuck on some Compeed knowing it would probably be attached to my socks in a gooey mess by the time we got to Kinlochewe. Sue was wearing her lighter Inov-8 boots and wasn’t suffering quite so much. And despite wearing shorts I had even started to get heat rash on my legs. A text from David said everywhere was full but he had managed to persuade the campsite to squeeze us on a tiny bit of grass near a hedge, even the café was full. The Hotel itself had a function on for someone who had completed all their Munros – not us then! Our walk back to Kinlochewe was at a pace to suit wearing full packs, baking sun and no breeze! Even so we were still 'perspiring' to put it mildly but at least my IcebreakerT, even after four days, did not smell because of the Merino wool. There by 6.30pm we went straight to the Hotel for an Orange Juice & Soda but there was no sign of David. A few texts later he appeared - he had been shopping for us - and I went off to pick up my car from Cromasaig whilst he took my pack to the camp to put up my tent for me. The views back to Slioch as I walked out were lovely but my feet were wishing they were in walking sandals and not boots!
Back at camp we soon found out that the majority of Kinlochewe’s midges lived in the hedge right next to us. So having cooked up on our stoves dinner and wine were either partaken under midge head nets or safely in our tents! A pity as it was a lovely evening. But that is Scotland for you – great days on the hills can be balanced out by the dreaded midge in the glens! Sadly we had no picture here as David's camera, which had them on, went missing here next day.