Foinaven, in Sutherland, is by far and away one of Britain’s finest mountains.
And the most beautiful. Composed chiefly of white quartz, on a good sunny day, even at the height of summer, you’d believe the mountain was covered in snow; a truly remarkable sight!
Foinaven is more a mini range of mountains than a ridge, in fact this so called ridge sports six separate summits; pundits regard the walk along the entire ridge, with its almost Skye-like ups and downs, as a long and arduous day out indeed.
And the complex monster certainly does not reveal itself willingly.
With the almost perfect cone of Ben Stack breathing down our necks and the wonderful scree slopes of nearby Arkle luring us on, my brother and I set out along the track for Lone.
Past the stalker’s house and along the reedy shores of Loch Stack we walked.
Over the shallow river we crossed until two huge sentinel like boulders, a natural gateway, they seemed, sucked us into a dark little wood resonant with the sound of an early morning cuckoo, surely one of the first to arrive so far north this year.
Beyond the trees the track began to rise into the glen of the Alt Horn, a wildly bleak glen hemmed in on the north side by the stark white quartz and interspersed dark heather browns of Arkle and on the south by the soon to be lush grassy slopes of Meall Horn. For two hours we climbed gently, until we reached the Bealach Horn.
To continue through this lonely pass would take us into the wild lands at the head of Loch Golly; few ever go that way. Instead we turned north, up th e squelchy grass and slippery boulders of Foinaven’s first Top, An-t-Saa hor.
The forecast had promised lots of sunshine with just an occasional shower; we were glad for that for navigation; this particular section of the tour can be particularly tricky. Alas, the clouds gathered up above and spitefully rolled down to meet us!
Compass in hand we pressed on blindly until we arrived on a plateau carpeted with tightly compacted stones; most of these were flat and a delight to walk on.
Skirting around and just below the dull summit of An-t-Saa Mhor, we climbed the short boulder festooned slope of Creag Dionard and the start of the ridge proper.
On our way up the clouds had allowed us to see only what was at our feet; green pin cushions already sprouting the germs of this year’s pinks or thrift.
Smaller pin cushions yet would soon yield way to the even tinier pink moss campion. Violet butterwort and milkwort, as well as the little pink lousewort, all looked good against the grey quartz of their habitat.
The cloud was thinning now, enough in fact to show us the ‘perils’ that awaited, in the shape of the formidable looking shark’s fin of rock known as ‘Loed Reay’s Seat’.
Then it began to rain. The rain turned to face stinging hail.
And then it turned to snow... for respite we lowered ourselves down the steep and nastily eroded ‘path’ to the col some hundreds of feet below, called Cadha na Beuchaich.
The climb up that so-called seat was even looser and, skirting along the top of an enormous drop, high up, had us blessing the fact that the wind was no more than a stiff breeze. Relieved to relegate our hands to merely steadying our way along, we let the following lumpy ridge lead us to the top of Point 869 and a big cairn that had us wondering if we had in fact already reached the summit of Ganu Mor. Surely we hadn’t been on the ridge long enough!
Suddenly the clouds rent asunder and there, way beneath us, stretched a vast, lochan speckled expanse of wetlands, and nothing else- certainly no more summits. This must be the top. Yet it couldn’t be...not so soon! The clouds closed in again. Perplexed, we back tracked a short distance, sat down and studied the map. We agreed that we were in fact on the slopes of Point 869, but that we should re- climb the short distant to its summit and set a correct compass bearing. That we would follow and see where it led us. As if to confirm our decision the clouds suddenly fled again, this time revealing the fabulous long arm of A’ Cheir Ghorm, with its unmistakeable knife edge arête of ever tumbling quartz. And there too, deep in Coire na Lice, was its give- away lochan.
Happy now we set off on our bearing, a bearing we no longer needed as the sun had come out at last to chase away the clouds for good. Exactly on course, out in front where it should be, at the head of its own gracefully curving ridge, rose Ganu Now our cameras were working overtime. The entire ridge stretched itself behind us sinuously.
To the east sat Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro. Directly to our west, separated by two beautiful blue lochans, Arkle soared majestically. The next long ridge in the north, Cranstackie and Beinn Spoinneadh, (much grassier hills, though with a share of rock along their summits), pointed at the open sea and Iceland.
In all we were surrounded by one of Scotland’s truly beautiful panoramas. Forgotten was the rain, the hail and that brief flurry of snow; we happily ignored the biting chill of the wind. We were there to marvel, and marvel we did-in full! Sitting in the lee of Ganu Mor’s cairn we ate and drank. We heard voices and soon four other walkers loomed out of the last dying shreds of mist. Part of an Edinburgh hill walking club, they’d ascended from the north, their sole target for the day, Ganu Mor. Each to his own, I’m sure, but to climb up to the summit and not at least go a little further to sample, or just see, the mountain’s awaiting delights, must be a travesty! Therein lies the sacrilege of ‘bagging’. We joked about the fact and went about our separate ways.
We’d done the walk, now it was time to do it all over again, this time in reverse. And this time, as the sun chased the clouds ever eastwards the views grew commensurately grander. It was tempting to go out along the length of A’ Cheir Ghorm, apparently you can sit there and listen to the echoes of constantly falling boulders- an eerie experience by all accounts.
Alas, time and an evening appointment for dinner at Durness, meant that we couldn’t spare the hour such a detour would have cost us.
No bad thing really. It just means that we’ll have to climb Foinaven’s mesmerising slopes again.
For now we contented ourselves with a close-up view of the crags and fearsome gullies the mists had denied us on our inward trip. Even the long walk out was one of evening peace and tranquillity.
The miles slowly passed as our appetites slowly grew. Eight o’clock and supper was a perfect end to a memorable mountain day.