Hillwalking - With fearsome drops on either side

Loch Hourn and Knoydart from the ridge.
Loch Hourn and Knoydart from the ridge.

Weird lights in the middle of nowhere! As we peered through the windscreen into the black night of Knoydart, we were fascinated, mesmerised in fact. It was as though someone had switched on higgledy-piggledy runway landing lights (perhaps for a drunken alien visitor). Yet, as I say, we were in the middle of nowhere and it was mid- night!

We were even more amazed when a few moments later, each pin point of light resolved itself into a pair of bright and inquisitive eyes. Ahead of us, trapped in the beams of our headlamps, a herd of red deer stags, some 40 or more strong, materialised out of the hillside.

For the sake of an early start we’d driven almost to Kinloch Hourn; our bed that night was the car. Come dawn we were awakened by the drumming of heavy rain on the vehicle’s roof, not what the forecasters had promised. There was no sign of the stags.

Thankfully, after a loitering breakfast, the rain eased and we got away. Under heavy skies we crossed the river and passed through the trees above the northern shore of the loch and thence, the open hillside.

In the heyday of the vast Victorian shooting estates, the deer forests of this part of Scotland, as indeed elsewhere, were very well managed. For the ease of stalkers and rich sporting clients alike, excellent paths were engineered which zig zagged cunningly up onto the corrie heights. It was by means of one such remaining trod that we climbed steadily to the snow line of Buidhe Bheinn.

And this was where our fun began. Much snow had fallen over recent days but the frosts had not yet been hard enough to make it firm for comfortable walking; during the entire course of our day aloft deep and yielding snow caused us many a flounder.

Our initial test came just below the summit of our first hill. A steep snow slope laced with hindering rocks gave us the kind of tussle that burning calf muscles remind you about for subsequent days to come! Yet with alpine views spread all around us the hard won summit was a glorious spot. Especially fine was the opening view down the length of Loch Hourn, backed, beyond Barrisdale, by the great bastion of ‘the rough bounds of Knoydart’. And the king that way? Had to be Ladhar Bheinn (Larven); streaked with snow and partially lit by the stray rays of a morning sun determined to make a go of it, he looked magnificent.

Beinn Sgritheall (Sgriol), and its rugged satellites loomed large above Arnisdale, while, further out across the sea loch, Blaven and the Red Cuillin of Skye just made it through the clouds.

Looking south we could see the long snaking back of the South Glen Shiel Ridge. These, backed by the tops of The Five Sisters of Kintail, and all in their winter garb, looked formidable. Closer to hand, and as befits her name, Sgurr na Sgine cut the sky like a knife.

But it was our own route forward that mesmerised us. Jagged looking and with many an undulation not even hinted at on the map, it looked insane! Time to test our alpine skills...

Our first objective was the narrow knobbly connecting ridge onto Buidhe’s second Top. With fearsome drops on either side, we teetered over rocky pillars, forced ways around the worst and used our bums a lot for undignified but safe descent.

Another hard plod on unforgiving snow and we were up. A pause for breath and another gander at the views. And now for Corbett number two.

I’d previously climbed Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais from its Glen Shiel side, in summer sunshine; that had been no preparation for the little epic that lay before us now. Snow bound and with many a trap lurking to catch the unwary, the dragon’s back curled away from us; we took our time with care. Moderately difficult rock steps barred our way in places, requiring concentration and the frequent use of hands and axes.

Along the way, a beautiful ridge of virgin snow, knife edged and as narrow as a church’s roof, spanned a gap like a bridge. It seemed a sacrilege to ruin its symmetry with our clumsy boots, but other than downwards or back it was the only way to go.

We now had a wall top to follow. (Walls are another feature of these local hills, courtesy of those Victorian planners). This one didn’t really help for it contrived to trap much windblown snow; often we found ourselves detouring in search of shallower options.

These conditions made a mockery of our estimated time of arrival. We’d initially planned to include Sgurr na Sgine in the day’s itinerary, but well before we arrived at the summit of Chaolais, that idea had been well and truly relegated to our dreams!

We concentrated on enjoying the task in hand. The continual rocky ups and downs were energy sapping; it seemed that we would never reach the end. We passed a tiny frozen lochan, noticed only as a darker smear amid the all pervading white, and then began another tedious climb.

At last, our final wall of snow, in fact the wall that almost beat us!

Not so much a wall as a huge bank of soft snow angled at about seventy degrees, we were both chest deep in it and virtually reduced to an ignominious stand still before one last gargantuan struggle saw us both collapsing at the top.

Next, a twist of the ridge to the west and some other enthusiast’s (nutter’s?) footprints to lead us the final few hundred metres to the summit cairn and a cold and comfortless halt for tea and sandwiches.

Though still boulder strewn and in places rocky, the western flank of the mountain is gentler and we were able to glissade off at a fair rate of knots; it was a fast if comically inelegant descent.

Soon we were down at the broad bealach and headed for the Allt a’ Coire Raidh and another good stalkers path for home. Despite the deep snow our boots had kept our feet dry and warm all day long. The river looked shallow...I found a deep bit!

Squelching along the path, beginning now to drip with sweat, all I needed was for the rain to come back on. And so, obligingly, it did!

But it wasn’t unpleasant. With only another three miles, (out of the day’s total of 10), to go, and with all the arduous ones behind us, we enjoyed that final hour of homecoming, content in the knowledge that the challenge thrown down by a pair of moody mountains, had been accepted and met with a measure of, respect, yes, determination, certainly, but may I say, also with honour.