Long Weekend in Assynt

Inchnadamph Lodge, on the shores of Loch Assynt was to be our base for three days for a trip with the walking club from work. We drove up from Kendal in eight hours on Thursday, arriving at 18:15 in time for an excellent dinner of meatballs cooked by Alasdair, followed by a couple of whiskies and a discussion of Friday’s aims. The two Munros of Conival and Ben More Assynt were set as the target, with Friday’s weather forecast to be the best of the weekend.

Friday

We departed as a group of seven with David, Alasdair, Ivan, Geoff and Peter in addition to Anna and I. The day was calm and the midges were out in force, as were the deer keds who were particularly partial to burrowing into my beard.

We followed the stream from the hostel towards the mountains, bearing left after a few kilometers to start climbing towards a col. Shortly before reaching this a rock band had to be crossed next to a nice waterfall, but the way was straightforward and we soon reached the col. From here, it was a short walk up the shoulder to Conival’s summit and lunch in its dry stone wind shelter.

The views to Ben More Assynt were excellent at first, though the cloud started to draw in. The group discussed options for the return journey. The most commonly trod route is to walk the kilometre to Ben More’s summit and then retrace steps all the way to the hostel. David had read about an alternative, which followed a scrambly ridge to the south top before an alarmingly steep drop down to skirt round Conival and regain the path near the stream.

Through gaps in the cloud, we could see the ridge and pick possible descent routes, but all looked unforgiving. We decided to press on to Ben More and make a decision there. The path became blocky and progress slowed, but we were soon across the col and trying to decide which of the two tops was highest. We visited both, while the cloud drew further and reduced visibility to less than 100m.

As we conferred about the next steps, a walker appeared in the mist, coming from the south ridge. We inquired about the technicality and exposure of the scrambling and descent, to which the man replied that he’d had to give himself “a talking to” at times to convince himself to continue. This had the effect of reducing group enthusiasm somewhat, though I could sense that Alasdair and Anna were still keen. We decided to break the group in two, with the three of us heading for the south top while the others returned the way we had come.

Saying farewell, we started along the ridge. It narrows quickly into an airy traverse, but rarely becomes too narrow for comfort; for most of its length one could sit and enjoy the views, providing the cloud permitted them. A few rocky steps down and along provided some interest, but mainly the ridge is excellent for the steep drops and sense of purpose. We came to “the bad step”: a short rocky outcrop which cannot be circumnavigated. A simple bit of grade 1 scrambling took us over this and we soon found ourselves on the south top.

Visibility was still very poor, and as we reached the far col the rain started to lightly fall. As I had picked a potential line of descent when looking from Conival, I took the lead and picked my way down the slope from the col, avoiding the large crags by heading left and then back right. It was hard on the knees and slow progress, but we came to Dubh-Loch Mór below without incident.

We skirted the edge of the loch and then contoured the pathless slopes of Conival to reach an intruiging high pass which weaves along and provides access to the west of the mountain. On the other side we once again found a path, and followed this until it rejoined the main path down the valley, near the point we had turned uphill earlier.

The hostel showers were somewhat intermittent, but overall on the good side. Upstairs, on the “B&B” (private room) floor, Anna took full advantage of the free-standing bath. The room (we had a double) was spacious, though the mattress felt a bit tired. The drying room is very warm, and the kitchen clean and well equipped if a little small.

We had tea and cake in the dining room, which has excellent views through the massive windows. Looking at maps, and googling for route descriptions we pondered a traverse of Suilven for Saturday though the forecast was not promising. We had dinner at the hotel, where the staff were friendly and the food plentiful if a little dated.

Saturday

Saturday came, and as expected the sky was brooding. Grade 3 scrambling seemed a bad idea and so we took the low level option of a walk to Sandwood bay. The track was generally good, and apart from a brief shower the weather stayed remarkably dry.

Evidence of the rain was present, however, when we tried to walk along the beach. Reaching the far end, the outflow from Sandwood Loch was deep and fast-flowing and proved impossible to cross without fording. After a final gaze towards the impressive stac of Am Buchaille, we retraced our steps to the car park.

On the way back, we stopped at The Anchorage tea rooms in Scourie, where we ordered five slices of the most expensive chocolate cake in the world at £4 a (not exceptionally generous) slice. It wasn’t a bad cake, but certainly not good enough to recommend the extortionate prices.

Sunday

Sunday was again an overcast day with low cloud, and a plan to ascend the Quinag was disregarded in favour of another day of low level options. Most of the group went to walk to the Old Man of Stoer, while Anna and I opted for a more touristy day out.

Our first stop was to visit the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph. These limestone caves were the home to the bones of polar bear, lynx and arctic fox amongst other creatures. Now removed to a museum, the caves are still fun to explore, with passages leading deep into the hillside if you’re small enough to investigate them. On the walk out from the caves, we looked out for the source of the stream; a spring welling up in a pool where it breaches the permeable limestone.

Our next stop was Knockan Crag, an important place in the world of geology. Here, exposed rock layers reveal old (Moine schist) rocks on top of younger (Durness limestone). This confused geologists for a while, until they worked out that the older rocks had been forced over the newer. There is a shelter with display boards explaining this, and a short trail showcasing the rock layers and a few sculptures.

From the Knockan Crag car park we could see Stac Pollaidh, and had noticed that its summit had been out of the clouds for an hour or two. We drove over to the car park, and after a brief discussion decided to head up and get a short walk in.

Recent path work meant that the going was good, and we walked anti-clockwise round the hill, climbing its north side to reach the east top in about 45 minutes. Although not raining, the winds were strong as we scrambled over the ridge towards the west summit. For the majority of the ridge, the scrambling is avoidable but I was having fun on the sandstone pinnacles as I picked the high route across.

After an interesting step around a corner, we reached the final unavoidable scramble leading to the highest summit at the western end. I examined the two obvious lines, leading left or right from a small col, but couldn’t find a way that I thought I could talk Anna both up and down. While contemplating options, I jogged over and bagged the summit. As suspected, downclimbing was harder than the ascent, and I ended up jumping the final two feet.

Anna, meanwhile, had been scoping her own route, and found an easy slab and chimney down a slope to the left. After a bit of knee-use and squirming she was on the other side and bagged the top too. The descent was steep but quick, and we were back to the car park just before the rain; the whole circuit taking 2 hours 45. We scoffed a packet of foam mushrooms and enjoyed the scenic route back via Lochinver.

See the full gallery of pictures from this trip.

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