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Peter Walker: Track 3861 in area near Lochinver to Ullapool (Britain)
Length: 24.0km, Creator time taken: 6h42m, Ascent: 1029m, Descent: 1034m
Places:Start at NC10727 21976, Suilven - Caisteal Liath, Meall Meadhonach West Top, Meall Meadhonach, Meall Beag, end at Start Logged as completed by 1
I first read about Suilven when I was about 11. It was in some British geographical gazetteer, a stern washed-out picture with the caption 'Scotland's Matterhorn?' and while even at that age I could see that the Alpine connection wasn't entirely accurate, it was obvious that this was something a bit more than the Lake District hills with which I'd recently become besotted. And now, 35 years or so later, I was finally getting round to trying it.
Few mountains more demonstrate the mendacity of mere altitude as a yardstick than this one does. Failing by a huge margin to gain Munro status, Suilven isn't even a Corbett, but its extraordinary profile massively overcompensates for such statistical 'failings'. From the west it presents its most famous outline...a huge helmet of grey rock looming over the busy village of Lochinver. From the east it's even more striking, a slightly bulbous spire fully earning the Matterhorn comparison. And from the north and south a more honest countenance...precipitous slopes rising to a multi-topped ridge. To add to the effect it rears up from the extraordinary wilderness of Assynt, a network of rock and water seemingly more belonging to Norse myth than Scotland. To many this is the most striking mountain in Britain.
I elected to approach from the west via Glen Canisp. A minor road runs up towards Glencanisp Lodge from Lochinver, with parking being provided about 1km short of the Lodge itself (the road beyond is private). There is an honesty box provided by the Assynt Foundation here, and given the work they have carried out in the area I'd heartily suggest a decent donation. Having noticed and failed to photograph a spectacular dragonfly on the verge next to the car (something which happened several times during the day) I set off, Suilven's dome prominent ahead with the adjacent (much higher) summit of Canisp seeming cowed and shy by comparison. I followed the road up to the Lodge and followed the signage through the grounds. Then it was properly out into the wilds, with an estate track leading up into the valley of the Abhainn na Clach Airigh. Suilven's profile gradually transformed from end-on to side-on as I walked, playing rough-and-ready hide-and-seek within the knotted and complex landscape, until finally the path crossed the burn. A few hundred metres after this the route to Suilven strikes off to the south at a sign detailing the current work being done on the path. Historically this has been considered a bit of a quagmire, but the Assynt Foundation are doing a sterling job and it's now largely bone dry and straightforward. It threads a way through the mottled patchwork of lochans to the foot of a wide gully. This leads up to the Bealach Mor: this (and an equivalent gully on the other side) are the only 'easy' ways to Suilven's ridge. And so the gully. Pathworks are ongoing here, but what was once considered difficult is now nothing more than 'steep and occasionally awkward'...imagine the Devil's Ladder only a bit steeper and with less stones. The views back north across the wilderness to Quinag are wonderful, but it's still a tedious climb. It's not that long though, and soon I was cresting the Bealach Mor while trying to absorb the sensational southward panorama of Coigach that wallops you on reaching the ridge, with Stac Pollaidh and Culs Mor and Beag rearing out of the watery tangle of lochans and bog, all backed by countless northern Highland peaks...one of the great moments in British hillwalking. Turning right I started the ascent to Caisteal Liath, the highest top and the author of Suilven's famous profile as seen from the west. This was very reasonable, with a good path enlivened by the odd easy clamber making its way up the ridge, and with magnificent views on both sides throughout. The top of Caisteal Liath is a smoothly benign grassy expanse betraying none of the awesome declivities close at hand, a wondrous place for a picnic if you have the appetite to lug all the necessary paraphernalia quite this far, and surrounded by prospects that reduce all and sundry to slack-jawed wonder. Most mandible-loosening of all is the view back along the ridge, with the second top of Meall Meadhonach as inspiring as most things that look like a spire tend to be. By the time I got back to the Bealach Mor the previous ridiculous spikiness of Meall Meadhonach was nowhere to be seen, so it was psychologically fairly straightforward to set off in its general direction. The initial ascent was a glorious airy walk with some steep climbs and occasional clambers (harder scrambling very much there if you want it) up to the West Top. From here I got a gruesome close-up view of the top section of Meall Meadhonach itself, a jagged sawn-off pencil of a mountain where the ability to outflank the substantial bands of rock obviously dwindled the higher up you got.
A slabby slither took me down into the gap, and a thin track started the considerable task of hauling my ageing carcass skyward. The ascent was basically grassy at this point, but steep to an almost cliched degree...most things on Suilven are either flat or precipitous. Up I wended through the rocks until the capping cliffs were reached, and I tried to rationalise the guidebook description. A few butch-but-easy pulls got me up onto some grassy ledges where I decided to stash my rucksack behind a rock (my vague intents to continue over Meall Bheag being blown away in gusts of unease and tiredness), and I set about what was hopefully the final obstacle before the summit and glory.
It didn't go well. An examination of my track in this section should indicate just how much back-and-forth and prevarication went on at this point...the scrambling isn't particularly hard, but the situation just felt so big that even the smallest route-selection decision seemed worthy of extensive intellectual agonies. Fortunately two lads caught me up, and this proved sufficient incentive to show a bit of moral fibre. Having convinced myself that my failure to overcome the wall to the right of a conspicuous hollow tower was down to my trousers being slung so low that I couldn't bend my knees enough to get my right foot on the critical hold (which must be the most teenage excuse for failure I have given since 1991), I dutifully hitched them up and gracelessly mantelled upwards. A brief and slightly thought-provoking traverse right led to easier-angled rock and soon the summit slopes. The top of Meall Meadhonach is bizarrely even flatter than Caisteal Liath's, but I only lingered long enough for a quick photo of the cairn and an inspection of Meall Bheag from above.
This is the final summit of Suilven, and its ascent from this side is generally considered the crux of the traverse. Looking down at this part-melted Cornetto of terraced sandstone, and scoping out the manouvres on its north face necessary to reach the top, I became glad that the necessity to go back to my rucksack was removing the temptation to have a proper go at it. (For today anyway...I really hate unfinished business).
So I retraced my steps over Meall Meadhonach's summit, the descent proving oddly straightforward: steps that were tenuous in ascent being more easily overcome by just lowering myself down them...the joys of being 6'3" tall. Midway down I bumped into the two lads from the ascent (who'd probably been put off an ascent of their own by how much of an pig's ear I'd made of that process...I'm sure a LOT less people would climb Suilven if Meall Meadhonach was actually the highest summit). Lachlan and Jamie were part of the footpath team, cheerily telling me that they were doing Suilven on their day off because they'd been working on the path for weeks without ever actually having climbed it.
I schlepped back over the West Top and down to the Bealach Mor. After a long last look at the view south, it was back down the gully for the walk out...this felt lengthy and dusty (and extensively insect-patronised) and I was glad of the Honesty Shop at Glencanisp Lodge where the ailing pedestrian can avail him/herself of all manner of nutritionally inappropriate revival mechanisms (mine was an Orange Fanta if you're interested) in return for just leaving the money on the counter. Another ten minutes or so and I was back at the car, looking back on a day that left me 'suitably impressed'.
It's not often that mountains whose ascent you've coveted for 35 years actually meet your expectations.
'These routes are for experienced climbers only, and should not be attempted by the ordinary pedestrian' - W A Poucher, 'The Scottish Peaks', published in 1965
Well, ordinary pedestrians aren't what they used to be. But still, let's be careful out there, eh?
(Ascent of Meall Meadhonach immortalised here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JFEc1_RK2g&t=283s )
Uploaded on: Thu, 12 Jul 2018 (19:14:17) Trackback: https://mountainviews.ie/track/3861/ To download GPS tracks you must be enrolled and logged in. See "Login or enrol", top right - quick and easy.
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