DAY 10 Saturday 15th May
East Side Ben More Assynt to Unapool
Walked from 05.45 to 16.30 hours
Distance 19K. Climbed 401m. B & B at Unapool
Photo 56: A Storm battered tent 0500hrs Day 10 Eastern flank Ben More Assynt under cloud on left
By 04.30 hrs the wind had gained strength once more and I was awoken by the flapping of the tent. This is a problem with my tent, the little cleats on the guys do not hold the cord firmly enough, so in a buffeting wind the guys gradually slacken. I emerged from the tent to salute the happy morn and found that as far as the weather was concerned it was very much business as usual. The flanks of Ben More disappeared into the murk only a matter of several hundred metres from me. The wind was still from the west and huge plumes of lighter coloured low cloud were thrashing eastwards over my head, in stark contrast to the dark pall of higher cloud above The eastern aspect – looking over Glen Cassley – was incredibly dramatic, gaps of lighter cloud brilliantly back lit by the dawn sun, only served to accentuate the darkness of the thick surrounding clouds. It was a constantly changing cloudscape, but this feature of dark cloud above and sunlit light cloud to the east remained until I escaped from the proximity of Ben More, later in the day.
Photo 57: Looking east from same spot 0500hrs
I tightened the tent guys and took a few photographs, only then realising that the pictures would have looked more dramatic if I had taken them before tightening the guys. I then wandered up the track for a pee, and while I stood there, admiring the view, I saw my path wending its way northwards across the moorland. Much relieved, in more ways than one, I returned to the tent for a morning brew up.
Photo 58: Looking east from camp 05.00 hrs
I feasted on Readi-brek, chocolate and a cup of tea, packed up and set off walking at 05.45. My next objective was Loch Bealach a Mhadaidh NC315 234 some 5 kms. away. The wind still gusted very strongly, as the previous evening, but still no rain! The S.R.W.S. details that this path ends at the loch not to reappear till north west of Gorm Loch Mor, describing the section in between as “… a rough pathless section from the outfall of Loch Bealach a Mhadaidh below the craggy hillside along the S.W. side of Gorm Loch Mor …”. In fact well before the loch I again experienced difficulty with following the path, and by the time I was dropping down to the outfall I had given up completely and just tried to pick the best route through what was very demanding terrain – rocks, heather and boggy bits in every combination.
I have always thought corries, especially when accompanied by tarns or lochs, to be quite forbidding places when viewed from below. Maybe because of its remote location, the weather and the potential difficulties I knew lay ahead, but as I looked up into the corrie I had a sense of great vulnerability in a [naturally] hostile area, although at the same time a terrific sort of excitement that I was the only one who could get me through this and back to ‘civilization’.
Photo 59: Rock Garden by Loch Bealach a Mhadaidth
I had been quite concerned by the prospect of crossing this river, as the map shows it to be of significant size, the S.R.W.S. notes on the route make no mention of it and sure enough although it is quite a cataract, I was able to pick my spot and cross it with dry feet. I then dropped down northwards and began contouring around the hillside towards Loch Gorm Mor. Progress had been slow this morning and was about to get slower. The next 3 kms section was very challenging, rather like the walk up to Beallach Bearnais on Day 5, but hugely enjoyable. In places the slope down to the loch was very steep and there were several crags to be got around – either over or under. All my senses were on high alert and I guess adrenaline was in good supply too.
Part way along the loch I stopped by one of the many streams for a rest, food and to replenish my water supply. The time was now nearly 09.00 and as I sat looking out over the dark rippled surface of Gorm Loch Mor, the day did not seem any lighter than it had been 4 hours earlier. Two kms on I had climbed a little and was now in cloud, which did not help matters and for the next 2 kms or so I was definitely Mr. Confused of Assynt. This was partly the fault of cloud but also because of the nature of the terrain, I had the feeling of walking through a canyon like area, which I suspect is the result of the torture that glaciation had imposed on it. It seemed to me, in that fog of ignorance, that the way through frequently changed direction, huge rock buttresses loomed out of the mist and I was literally ‘following my nose’. This was the area just to the west of an unnamed lochan at NC297 258, depicted on the map by the symbol for ‘rock outcrop’. Still in the cloud for most of the time I eventually cleared that section and I slowly climbed up the side of the valley. I had seen no sign whatsoever of the path that is shown on the map coming from the intersection with the main approach path up Ben More Assynt and Gorm Loch Mor. I knew from the S.R.W.S. notes on this route that I needed to aim for the two lochans at NC280 270.
Photo 60: Gorm Loch Mor
At one point the clouds lifted enough to reveal hanging valleys and the strange alignment of Loch nan Caorach NC295 277, which is a 2 km long loch nestling in a depression near the top of a long ridge and seeming to drain sideways down the steep valley to Abhainn an Loch Bhig which flows parallel to it. On another occasion I had a fleeting glimpse through a gap in the cloud, of the top end of that finger of sea that is Loch Glencoul. Ahead of me I began to see plumes of spray billowing down into the valley and I guessed, correctly, that I must be nearing the lochan at NC283 265. I crossed the stream issuing from the lochan and below me to the right I saw the top of what I imagine is quite a spectacular waterfall, if you could get into a position to see it! I had only gone a few metres beyond the stream when lo and behold there was a very prominent black peaty track, so I guessed that below me somewhere there was a vantage point that warranted the effort for walkers coming from the northern access point to Ben More. Shortly I met three people on just such a mission and we chatted for five minutes or so. They seemed surprised and a bit appalled at my revelation that they were the first people I had seen to speak to since leaving Ullapool, on Thursday morning.
Photo 61: Looking E from NC285264 (approx 3 km NW Gorm Loch Mor)
The cloud was still down and the next 750 metres of path to the two lochans, is much more convoluted than the map shows, changing direction and several other paths intersecting. At one point I got out the compass, just to reassure myself that the path which looked as if it were going in the wrong direction was in fact the one I wanted. I had come out of the cloud by the time I reached the two lochans, these mark the departure point of the path westwards to Inchnadamph. I relaxed knowing that I now had a 4 – 5 kms. walk down a good path to the A894.
My social life was now a real whirl, because I met up with another 10–12 walkers before I reached the road, in fact so many people that I could not cope with talking to all of them! Ahead of me across the moorland to the north-west was the brooding bulk of Quinag, sheltering sullenly under a thick mantle of cloud. Further on, the hazy expanse of Eddrachillis Bay with its many sunlit islands, which narrows to become the three spectacularly beautiful sea lochs set either side of the constriction at Kylesku, where until recently a ferry would allow travellers on the A894 to continue their journey. Now two dramatic bridges take the road across the narrows, a kilometre west of the old ferry point, enabling north south contact to be maintained without let or hindrance 24 hours a day.
Photo 62: Track down to A894 Quinag in cloud
The time was 1500hrs when I set foot on the tarmac of the A894, I walked down a short way and then stopped for a very well earned rest. I sat down in the warm hazy sunshine and feasted on dry fruit and chocolate, washed down with energy boosted water, the occasional car swished by and the last 30 hours or so began to seem a bit surreal, now that I was back in ‘civilisation’. I idly turned on the mobile ‘phone and to my surprise found a good signal, seconds later I was talking to Ali. I have to admit that after all the challenges of the last day and a half I was a bit choked when I heard her voice. Bad move she immediately became concerned that I was in some sort of distress, and it took a lot of explaining before she accepted I was O.K.. I must say that I felt that after having walked 40kms, endured bad weather, overcome very challenging terrain and obstacles and had only about four hours sleep, I was entitled to be a bit emotional when I spoke to my loved one.
The 4 kms walk down to Unapool were a delight, looking down on Loch Glencoul and beyond to the hills north of the lochs. I think sea lochs tend to be more attractive than their freshwater cousins, something to do with the weed covered shorelines and generally more bird life. Now that I was at low level the weather pattern became more apparent, looking around, all the mountains and hills over 500 metres had dense really dark clouds over them, the lower coastal fringe and out to sea were under pale blue skies in warm hazy spring sunshine. The overall effect was a stark contrast of light that robbed the hillsides of any colour and detail, so much so that all the high ground appeared in silhouette only. This weather pattern was to become a feature of the remainder of the journey to Cape Wrath.
Photo 63: Road to Kylesku
Earlier in the day I had decided that because Kylesku is a clear break point in the journey and I would be arriving there probably in late afternoon, it made sense to enjoy the comforts of a B&B if one presented itself! It does not pay to rely on things like that as one can so easily be disappointed. The previous year in my coast to coast walk I arrived in Gairlochy on the Caledonian canal NE of Fort William, 19.30 hrs, soaking wet, having walked the last 2 hours in pouring rain, to find the only B&B full (or unwilling to take in this bedraggled figure!) and having to walk on to the nearby campsite. But as I neared Unapool I did allow myself passing thoughts of a warm shower and soft bed.
Photo 64: Café and B&B, Loch Glencoul
Ahead I noticed a sign and was soon looking at a neat little tearoom in a stunning position between the road and the loch. I realised the attraction of sitting down admiring the view, with a pot of tea and homemade cakes and was soon dumping my rucksack and making my order.
Half an hour later having enjoyed copious quantities of tea with shortbread and sponge cake I was preparing to leave and asked if they could recommend a B&B “ funny you should ask, but we can help you there as well” replied Deryck. He and his wife Mary had come to Sutherland from Yorkshire after they retired, to run the tearoom while living in a caravan in the garden. After their house was built ‘Maryck Bed and Breakfast’ was added to their business empire.
Its funny how fortunes can change on a trip like this, 12 hours earlier I was contending with storm force winds and very hostile terrain, now I was ensconced in a comfortable room with the imminent prospect of a shower and then a couple of beers and a ‘proper’ meal down at the pub by the old ferry slip. Just to put the gilt on the gingerbread Mary had offered to do some washing, so I would be starting on the last leg of my journey with clean socks and underwear!
Photo 65: Looking East from B&B, Aird da Loch in sunlight
Later I phoned Ali again on my way to the pub and had quite a long chat, eventually persuading her that I was still of sound mind and fit in wind and limb. The time was about 19.30 as I walked back up the road to Maryck , there was blue sky above and a warm sun, it seemed a perfect early summer evening, until I looked over to the dark hills with their ominous head-dresses of black cloud. I had no idea what sort of weather to expect on Sunday.