Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sutherland Trail again

or, as I prefer to think of it: bad timing, but a good time.
As you read this, bear in mind that I am very, very bad at hot weather. I was born and raised in a cold country and I just can't cope with heat. Unfortunately, our second try for this coincided with an unprecedented heat wave across the UK, with temperatures exceeding 30C in southern England: even Scotland was in the high 20s (unheard of!). Add to this a lingering UTI (me) and lingering viral cough (him) and the end result isn't surprising. But we had a damn good time trying :-)

So. This time we caught the Tim Dearman service to Lochinver, which leaves Inverness at 0850 to arrive at Lochinver at 1150-ish, earlier and more convenient than the post bus from Lairg. Heading cheerfully up the track as before, we discovered a major difference: clegs (scroll down here). As we usually visit Scotland in May or October we'd never encountered them in such numbers before and, like every other biting insect I've met, 9 out of 10 clegs prefer Me. There were midges about, but hot, dry weather reduces the lifespan of adults and the light wind kept them off us except in sheltered hollows. Sadly clegs are much stronger flyers. As are Tabanid horseflies (the big ones) and deerflies (patterned wings form a very obvious triangle when at rest). All of which spurred us to press on at a cracking pace too fast for comfort in the heat. We reached the small cairn marking the track to Suilven at about 1500 (I think), and decided to try for it despite the heat on the grounds that we'd regret it if we didn't. We left the big packs behind a hummock, took the convenient hydration bladder out of his pack - kudos to Osprey for integrating a lightweight backpack harness - and set off, pursued by midges. I made it to the saddle, then decided my pounding heat-headache suggested discretion, and just sat for about 30 minutes while he explored the western summit.
Even from the saddle the views are spectacular. The mountains of northwest Scotland are inselbergs, isolated peaks rising from relatively flat ground. The heat haze almost obscures them, but looking south we could see the shoulder of Cul Mor on the left, with Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh in the distance.

This was the view north, past Loch na Gainimh to Canisp. A light shower cooled the first part of the descent, but lower down it just made the air even more humid. We picked up the packs in a cloud of midges and headed east on the path beside Loch na Gainimh. We hoped to find a good campsite on the relatively flat ground at the eastern end of the Loch, with the added bonus (please!) of a breeze off the water to keep the midges at bay. It almost worked: there was a relatively flat patch, but the breeze didn't last long. We donned our trousers-legs (I love zip-offs), jackets, hats and midge-nets in seconds flat, then sat disconsolately with clouds of frustrated midges whining around our heads. Getting into the tent was an interesting exercise, but we had a pleasant 15 minutes killing those that made it in with us, while sneering at the hordes crawling over the tent inner and mesh.

A light spatter of rain on the fly woke us at 0430 to a morning that remained midge-free as long as we stayed on the beach and the breeze blew our scent out over the water.
By 0515 we were away, heading east toward Lochan Fada and the climb to the shoulder of Canisp.
The path becomes indistinct in places along the shore, but with an OS map we knew where we were even if we weren't on the path. We roughly followed the line of the stream up from the loch at 207167, then west and a bit north for the Bealach na Suileig. The skies were clearing fast as we reached higher ground.
And the sun was getting hot already. We took a break to de-tick: the multitude of deer tracks along the lochside had suggested there'd be a lot, and there were. As I'm usually the pathfinder, I had the worst of it. Ticks are very vulnerable to dehydration; putting my socks on a hot rock in hot sun made the scurrying dots easy to find and remove. The morning was now glorious: cooled by a light breeze we sauntered along and down the hillside, keeping reasonably high as long as possible for easier walking and fewer clegs.
The view northwest to Inchnadamph from low on the shoulder of Canisp; the Loanan is largely hidden by the slope. The path past Inchnadamph climbs the hill rising out of shot to the right.

If you're worrying about crossing the Loanan (here are some keywords for search engines: ford cross wade river depth deep) as you read this, note that buses to Lochinver travel the A837, which has decent views of the river so you can assess the depth before you start the walk. If you decide it's not for you, head westish from the Bealach na Suileig for the footbridge where the Loanan leaves Loch Awe (the stream into Loch na Gruagaich is small and easily crossed - check Google Earth to see the line of the paths across it - and should you need it, there's an unmarked bridge on the outflow stream). The circular walk from Inchnadamph to Canisp and back in the Cicerone guide suggests crossing the Loanan near Stronechrubie, but we read this after we'd done it. We took a line heading for the valley of the Allt na Uamh, and crossed the Loanan at roughly 251179 with no trouble at all: he was dryshod, I miscalculated a step :-). After a week of dry weather nowhere in this wide shallow was more than ankle deep. I'd be willing to bet that it wouldn't be a lot deeper even during a normal summer.
From here we walked through flowering meadows (and clegs) beside the river, then headed for the road verge hoping for more wind and fewer clegs. I'm embarrassed to say we were grateful for the wind of every vehicle that passed us, even *shudder* the, ah, scented breeze following the refuse truck. After an early lunch in the picnic site at Inchnadamph (a couple of cyclists were packing up a tent in the far bay, hidden from the road), we headed uphill. And uphill, and uphill again. No rest. No shade (there are no trees on the hillsides), scarcely any breeze, and the sun was hammering down. If we faltered, the clegs, big horseflies and deerflies pounced... well, actually they don't pounce. They land so lightly you don't feel them until they bite. Hot and hotter, with sweat running from my hatband into my eyes and a headache tapping, then hammering at the base of my skull.

More and more slowly I trudged, pausing briefly at the top of each rise if the breeze was noticeable. Somewhere around 274235, as we topped one rise only to find another beyond it, he said he was out of water. We carry a Katadyn filter capable of purifying even green slime (or so the manufacturers claim), and so far we'd been able to refill our bladders from runnels as we walked... but this hillside was dry. The nearest water was the stream at the bottom of the valley (down that hill and back again?) or a lochan, perhaps as much as a half hour further up the path at
the speed at which we were crawling. I considered my condition and his, the distance/altitude needed to reach even a possible campsite, let alone the point we'd hoped to reach that evening, and decided this was Not Fun. If we pressed on we ran the risk of heat exhaustion and injury simply because we were tired. The logical choice was to return to Inchnadamph, and I felt no regret at all as I said so.

We could have camped there and gone on again in the morning, but we were each favouring one of our knees (the climb up Suilven took its toll on our aged joints)... and the next day was forecast to be just as hot or hotter. So we sank onto the benches in the picnic ground and waited for the Tim Dearman coach to pass (at 1700) on its way back from Durness. We played 'I Spy' (does anyone else think 'green' is not 'something beginning with G'? 'Grass' by all means, but 'green' is a, a quality, not a thing. Hmph). We were rained on. We read the interpretation boards again (Inchnadamph is in the North West Highland Geopark, which celebrates this astonishingly beautiful and interesting landscape). And I took a picture of the memorial to Ben Peach and John Horne, whose names I knew before ever we visited this place. It's difficult to imagine how they achieved what they did, and every time I open the geological maps of northwest Scotland, my eyes are drawn to their names on the corner of the map. Their work lives on; long may it inspire others.
The memorial is the small cairn on the hill in the middle distance.

By 2015 we were in a hotel in Inverness. And it was just as well, because on Thursday he was ill. But on Friday we went to Orkney, and on Saturday and Sunday we drove up to Tongue. Stay tuned for more Scotland. And remember that, despite the midges and the clegs and the deerflies and the heat... we'd be back there like a shot if the chance arose. The land and its people are worth every bite.

PS. We've decided that Day Two of the Sutherland Trail as written is just too long/hard for us: Flatland (East Anglia) just doesn't offer enough opportunities for peak fitness. So... we'd consider camping at Suilven, then taking the route up the western end of Canisp described in the Cicerone guide to come down the shoulder and into Inchnadamph for an early night before hitting the long, long climb to the Bealach na-h-Uidhe fresh in the morning.


SueJ said...

Brave effort! Clegs are sods!Horseflys ditto! I have encountered such temps (& horseflys)on the Tor de Mont Blanc but that was half a lifetime ago! Pictures are awesome though. Two weeks will see us in Scotland -probably heading for an island or two as usual. I need some R&R, although I have bought some decent walking boots to replace the ones that the fieldmice chewed last winter!

fleegle said...

That sounds lovely, horseflies notwithstanding.

I ordered a small Golding...we need to compare, right?