Some years ago, I was preparing for another attempt on Kilimanjaro and had persuaded one of my cousins, Chris, to come with me. We decided that since there was a big age gap which meant we didn’t really know each other that well, we should try something a little smaller and closer to home to see how well we got on. We’d be sharing a tent for nearly a fortnight and we figured it better to find out before we got to Africa!
At the time I lived in England and Chris in Edinburgh. The best plan seemed to be to spend a couple of days in the Scottish Highlands, with a bit of hill walking, a bit of driving and a lot of conversation. So in early September 2008, I picked Chris up from his place and we drove up past Stirling to Crianlarich, then Tyndrum, across Rannoch Moor and through Glen Coe. Our destination was a Bed and Breakfast (B&B) place I’d found in Fort William, as we had decided to start our trip by climbing the biggest of them all in the UK – Ben Nevis. At 1404 metres, it’s not that high compared to the 5895 metres of Kilimanjaro, but it’s the best we could do in our country, and is still a challenging undertaking.
The B&B was compact at best. Our en suite bathroom could only be reached through a sliding door (there wasn’t enough room for a normal one to open into our room) and I could stand in the bathroom and touch all four walls without moving my feet – including stretching through the shower! But it was clean, warm and comfortable, and the people who ran it were very friendly.
We’d arranged to have an early breakfast and the owners even provided a packed lunch, which was huge! Large chunks of bread with slabs of beef and cheese, fruit, chocolates and biscuits, as well as flasks of coffee. We were all set.
We parked near the Ben Nevis Inn, put on our boots and headed for the path up the hill. (My apologies, I always say hill, even when it’s really a mountain. Call it Scottish understatement if you will!) The initial path along and up the side of Glen Nevis is unremarkable, though the views as you get higher up become more and more breathtaking. Parts of the path are constantly being repaired due to erosion from scores of boots every day, and in parts boulders had been placed to make steps, which as I’ve mentioned before I find more of a hindrance than a help.
Pretty soon we found ourselves above the Half Way Lochan (Meall An T-suidhe) which isn’t really half way, and there the path split. A right turn would take up the rest of the Mountain Path, which is the route most people take. We turned left, and followed the path round the shoulder and into the valley below the north face. As we got further into the valley, the cliffs to our right just kept on rising, kept growing. It’s a formidable sight and I was very glad that our route wasn’t going to take us up there!
We had lunch outside the CIC hut, looking up at the jagged cliffs rising high above us on the Ben, and at the CMD arete at the head of the valley – it looked impossibly high and sharp from where we were – then crossed the stream and headed up the hillside on the other side of the valley. Our plan was to walk up to Carn Mor Dearg (itself Scotland’s 9th highest mountain) and then cross the CMD arete to get up onto the summit of Ben Nevis. We’d been walking mostly in sunshine but as we got up onto CMD the cloud came down, obscuring a lot of our view.
It has to be said that crossing the CMD arete was a lot of fun, not as scary as I’d expected, though I was disappointed that due to the cloud we couldn’t see just how far the ground dropped away either side of us. In very little time we were scrabbling up through the boulders on the other side and emerging onto the summit plateau. It’s very broad, covered in boulders, and has the ruins of an observatory not far from the summit cairn. We’d emerged into glorious sunshine and, looking over the edge of the cliffs, could see that we were above the cloud. The feeling was just brilliant. Standing at the highest point in Britain, I did the only thing you should do – I sat on the trig point at the very top!
We carefully made our way back down onto the zig zag path that marks the top of the Mountain Path (also known as the Pony Track) because there are hidden gullies and dangerous spots around the summit. Once safely on the zigzags the descent was routine and uneventful, though the views were again stupendous, and we headed off the hill and into town for a well earned hearty meal and a celebratory beer!
The following day we drove up alongside Loch Ness (no sign of the monster) to Inverness, then headed up beyond Ullapool to Elphin. Chris’ parents have a place there and were in fact there to meet us. Looking out of the kitchen window we had a great view of the following day’s hike: Suilven. Its a very distinctive mountain, part of the Assynt range in the far North West of Scotland, and its shape has made it iconic for walkers and climbers all over the UK.
We were up early in the morning to be greeted by clear skies, and we drove round to the start point, not far from Lochinver. The terrain around there is mostly made up of peat bogs with countless lochans and streams, but we were pleased to find that there was a well marked out path which would take us right alongside the mountain. It was a good 2 1/2 or 3 hours walking, stopping occasionally for water, before we reached the point where we had to leave the path and head directly for the side of the mountain, again skirting lochs and fording a couple of streams, while bouncing slightly as we walked on top of the peat.
The mountain looks formidable as you approach it, but once up close there’s an obvious gully which goes straight up the middle of it. We made rapid progress (Chris a lot more rapid than me!) and the view as I came up out of the gully on to the ridge was stupendous. Looking south Stac Pollaidh was easy to spot – looked quite small though – and the bulks of Cul Mor and Cul Beag were nearby. But remember the lochans and streams I mentioned? They were glittering and glistening everywhere I looked, the sun finding and bouncing off water all over. It seemed like there was more water than land from where I stood, yet when walking though it it hadn’t seemed that way.
Suilven has two peaks. The broad, dome shaped rock nearest Lochinver (in the foreground of the picture above) is the highest point, Caisteal Liath, while at the far end is the jagged ridge leading to the lesser summit of Meall Beag. We turned right towards the highest point, and were immediately buffeted by a very strong wind. At one point, just approaching the summit cairn, I was almost reduced to crawling on hands and knees becuase the wind was so strong. There were clear skies though, and the view out towards The Minch, the Outer Hebrides and the Atlantic beyond was well worth the trip, as was the panorama taking in all the Assynt mountains, rising up out of the peat as hulking great individuals, all with different shapes and all crying “climb me next”! (I have yet to go back, but I will one day: Stac Pollaidh, The Quinag, Canisp – you have been warned!)
We descended by the same route and had the long walk back to the start. Just as we reached the car the heavens opened, but that was fine by us! It was a spectacular day’s walking, with perfect weather, and we’d had a ball.
Not only that, but Chris and I had established a great bond which lasted us through the ascent of Kilimanjaro that winter, and over the years since. We’d found that we could get on and that we’d not wind each other up too much on the next trip. Mission accomplished!