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Hanging on to Quinag: just a breeze?

Hanging on to Quinag: just a breeze?

Postby old danensian » Thu Jun 10, 2021 8:27 pm

Date walked: 06/06/2021

Time taken: 7.5 hours

Distance: 14 km

Ascent: 1130m

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“One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it.” (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

Before writing I sometimes search for quotations to see if any words or phrases connect with what I’ve experienced. Occasionally, truisms of others help focus the mind or clarify a particular perspective. So, it was with some surprise that I came across this quotation deriving from a place and era very distant from the remote wilds of Assynt.

“How apt,” I thought, but I’d be getting ahead of myself if I plunged straight in to explain why.

Instead, this journey was driven by the desire to reject, for once in a while, those oft-quoted beliefs that “it’s the journey not the destination;” and the Olympian ideal of “not winning but taking part.”

My intended destination was prime and clear: the summit of Sail Gorm on Quinag in Assynt. The winning prize for which I strove was to be equally clear: experiencing both the sunset and sunrise while camping on top. It was a plan that had been dreamt, plotted and planned for over a year, and I wasn’t going to delay it so I could include an eclipse as well.

Spidean Coinich - and attractive skyline from the car park

Turn left for an adventure

Leaving the car park on the A894 late in the afternoon, there was no ambiguity about the route. Once on the quartzite slabs it was like walking on a tilted pavement. Polished stretches were reminiscent of the flagstone floor of a well-visited cathedral, and testament to the hill’s popularity. At times they gleamed in the late afternoon sun, creating abstract images as if still shimmering in the pressured heat of their creation millions of years ago. Their resilience and the lack of footpath erosion would prove to be in stark contrast with what was to be encountered later.

Glint and flow - the quartzite pavement

Looking back to admire Glas Bheinn, Ben More Assynt and Conival

A cairn on the skyline served as an interim target, and then marked a brief respite in the gradient at about 620m. Thereafter the ground became rocky rather than slabby, but at least it was not an ankle-snapping boulder-hop. One allure of Assynt is that, no matter how steep the ground, you do not get a sense of being hemmed in: there’s a view to either side rather than an unrelenting grass or scree slope a few inches from your face. Such distractions can be small but valuable mercies.

Steeper final slopes protect Spidean Coinich

After just ninety minutes I flopped into the dry-stone armchair crafted as part of the cairn at the top of Spidean Coinich to enjoy the magnificent views from the first Corbett of the round (it was my second of the day having popped up Meall na Leitreach above Drumochter on the way north).

Spidean Coinich - with Sail Gorm and Sail Gharbh beyond

Shores of Loch Assynt, Ben More Assynt and Conival from Spidean Coinich

My plan was to be on the second Corbett, Sail Gorm, by 8.00pm, ready to settle in for the light-show ahead. I had plenty of time to saunter and wallow in all the cliches that such surroundings would inevitably trigger. However, one anxiety was building. Although the breeze would keep the midges at bay, it was now strengthening beyond the 8 or 10 mph forecast. I peered into the distance, looking at the lay of the land on Sail Gorm to spot any likely sheltered spots for the tent if necessary. But lots could change between now and then.

South to the silhoettes of Canisp, Cul Mor and Suilven

The rollercoaster profile of Quinag, from all angles and in all route descriptions, forewarns of its ups and downs. You are going to be in for bursts of High Intensity Interval Training if you want to cover the ground quickly. I, on the other hand, looked forward to sauntering up, down and across with plenty of breathers, photo-stops and general lassitude.

Lochan Cornaidh nestling below Spidean Coinich from the 745m knobbly bit

Out to Sail Gharbh - to be savoured in the next morning's plans

The initial drop looks intimidating but, like many descents, it became merely a step from one large ledge and doorstep to the next, with little sense of exposure. Foreshortening and deviously cropped images have created unfounded fears about what needs to be tackled.

The photogenic prow was passed, the scene of those judiciously cropped edits shown at home with a sense of bravado. I gave it some thought but decided it was too far away to fix the tripod, set the self-timer and then dash to its furthest point to strike the obligatory pose. Scale and foreground interest would have to wait for another occasion.

North over Sail Gorm - with Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle beyond

While it was dispiriting having to drop down to about 550m twice before the final climb to Sail Gorm, and although I was able to take my time, I was now confident that my hill-fitness was returning. Nevertheless, I was grateful that beyond where I stood the angle relented and the steady gradient along the spine of Sail Gorm to the top stretched ahead.

Disturbingly, that anxiety from an hour or so ago was mounting. This was now no longer a breeze; it had passed the phase of being a fledgling wind and seemed determined to put my plans in jeopardy by getting stronger. I could walk in that calm spot just below the ridge line, but the ground was hardly conducive to pitching a tent and expecting anyone to stay in it. I’d spotted a shallow scoop from a distance and was hoping it would provide sufficient shelter if the conditions persisted.

The little green hotel ready to take visitors on the top of Sail Gorm

I arrived at the cairn at 7.30pm, earlier than expected, but now with plenty of time to scout around. The scoop was there just as I’d hoped, and not a trick of the light. There was a small spot of flat ground in its centre which, fortunately, wasn’t merely a damp hollow that might have left me wringing out a damp sleeping bag in the morning.

As I slowly settled in, I kept glancing across to a bank of cloud to the west that seemed to be hanging low over Harris and Lewis. Its presence made me suspicious that a spectacular sunset wasn’t to going to materialise: all that way to be disappointed. All I could do was wait, hope, and nibble the sandwiches I’d made the night before. I’d shunned the additional weight of stove, gas cannister and cooking bumph in favour of a hearty fish and chip Sunday lunch at the Seaforth in Ulapool, and I knew I could survive without a mug of tea for breakfast in the morning. And so I sat and waited, pondering all the cliches, promising visits to Foinaven and Arkle in the north and appreciating how geology, glaciation and time had combined to sculpt such a different landscape from those further south.

Questioning the early prospects of a sunset from Sail Gorm

Evening shadows creep up the western slopes of Sail Gharbh

Nursing a 17-year-old Balvennie, and trying to detect the sherbet spice, toasted almonds and cinnamon that the tasting notes promised, I watched the lighting gradually improve.

Just watching and waiting ...

... and waiting ...

There’s something primal and visceral about being alone in such a setting and watching the sun disappear. You begin to appreciate what individuals in those communities felt thousands of years ago as they saw this life-force disappear, not understanding and naggingly apprehensive about its return.

Final light illuminates the cairn on Sail Gorm

... and it had all been worth it.

Tired after a long day, I finally turned in at about 11.00pm, leaving the last of the yellows and oranges to fade beyond the horizon and profoundly grateful to be able to enjoy such an experience. The strongest of the wind still blew over the ridge, but my small spot remained in relative calm. To the gentle rustling of the tent fabric I dozed off looking forward to enjoying an equally spectacular sunrise and a lie-in.

However, I might have had an hour’s sleep.

Just after midnight something slammed against the side of the tent. That gentle rustle from the evening before turned to an increasingly frantic slap, slap, slap.

The gusts grew stronger and I could feel the pole taking the strain. Not only had the wind increased in strength, it had taken the liberty of shifting direction too, now coming directly from the east and slamming straight into my once sheltered spot.

I persevered. I tried to relax. I wondered if my earplugs were in my first aid kit.

Then it started.

First it was a gnawing doubt, like when the only thing you can think about in the middle of the night is negativity and doom. Then … they came like an annoyingly monotonous drip.

What if … a peg came loose?
Would I find my glasses in the maelstrom of jumbled belongings?
What if … a seam started to come apart?
Would a single boot, with its gaiter still attached, be last seen bouncing down the slope?
What if … a zip burst?
Would the tattered remnants of my tent be retrieved from the barbed wire of a fence on the edge of Stornoway?
What if … the pole snapped?
At least I knew where my car keys were – they’d been sticking into my thigh for the last three hours.

At 2.45am I lowered the zip on the fly-sheet a few inches to see what was happening, and it took ten minutes to wrestle it back up.

With yet another gust I felt the side of the tent shape itself to my body. From the outside it must have looked like I was being vacuum-packed ready for display in a supermarket chiller cabinet.

At 3.00am I decided it was time to bail.

It wasn’t wet and it wasn’t cold: I just had to keep hold of everything. Methodically, I got my bag packed in the tent and squirmed enough to get my boots and gaiters back on inbetween the increasingly frequent battering from outside. I then planned how to systematically take the tent down: bag for pegs in one pocket; bag for pole in another; bag for the tent itself in yet another. Unzip the fly-sheet and hope for the best while throwing my heavy packed bag out. Release one end guy line, put the rucksack on the tent to stop it blowing away and take the pole out. Then, systematically remove each peg, rolling the fabric bit by bit as I went.

Hints of a sunrise over Foinaven and Arkle

Immensely grateful that it was neither wet nor cold, at 4.00am my immediate life and belongings lay bundled securely at my feet. I breathed a sigh of relief, wondered fleetingly about that mug of tea, and sat in the lee of the cairn to watch the sunrise. A bank of cloud to the north beyond Foinaven had thoughtfully delayed its appearance until I’d finished wrestling with my tent and the elements.

Sunrise spreads its wings

Suilven - still tucked in with the duvet drawn up

Then I changed my mind. I hadn’t bailed out, I’d simply decided to carry on as planned, just a little earlier. Some sceptical wag from Skegness would most probably have described it as “bracing.”

By now skeins of mist dragged across the tops as I sat and recalled the route back to where the Sail Gharbh track could be reached. If it was temporarily blanketed I didn’t want to reascend the nobble of 745m. There would be a couple of scrambles over sandstone blocks, some zig-zags until a long bank of sand appeared – at which point the additional effort could be avoided. As it was, I was blessed with visibility that confirmed the accuracy of my memory.

Having passed the cairn marking the point of my later descent to the Lochan Cornaidh and the stalker’s path below, I strode out - almost treading on a nesting grouse. Its wings were spread across the path, perfectly camouflaged as if stretching out in the non-existent sun. Suddenly it drew them back and out scuttled seven or eight tiny green and yellow fluffy chicks, scattering in all directions. There was no frantic flapping of wings as it burst from the undergrowth and no noisy gargling to distract attention. Instead, she (?) determinedly shepherded of her off-spring back together while I stood and watched in admiration.

Sail Gorm - last night's blustery bedroom from Sail Gharbh

Like an ethereal apparition, the trig and cairn of Sail Gharbh appear from the mists

A little while later, and with no further disturbance of fledgling wildlife, the cairn of Sail Gharbh emerged from the mist like an ethereal apparition. There, breakfast was served at 5.30am – banana, museli and milk, but no tea – and I waited, hoping to see more than the occasional glimpses of the landscape below. It was that frustrating time of day when above you can see the blue sky and ahead an opaque ball trying to burn off the stubborn thin skein of mist. By now, of course, the wind had dropped, and all that remained was to return to the cairn at the bealach and descend.

A sense of scale from below Spidean Coinich

All power to the John Muir Trust as the path trenches that have been eroded in sand on that steep slope must be difficult to stabilise. It was quite a contrast to the polished stretches of barely yielding quartzite on the ascent.

Back in the glen and beyond the lochan the path twists and snakes its way towards the road, but not without the occasional surprise. The twists, turns and hollows provide all sorts of cover. As one corner was turned three hinds looked non-plussed over their shoulders at my arrival. Undeterred they stayed put and I passed barely twenty metres away from them. A pair of golden plovers paid a similar lack of attention, swooping close from one side of the path to the other as I walked on: they seemed more intent on romance than distraction from anything that might result from each other’s attentions.

Finally, at 7.30am I arrived back at the car and chatted with a couple of early starters.

“What are the midges like on top?” one asked. I laughed.

A last look back at the early morning skyline and an a full twenty four hours

For the day ahead I did have plans, but fell asleep in a lay-by just beyond Inchnadamph, then again on the pebbles of Ulapool’s beach, and yet again by the shores of Loch Glascarnoch. I’d optimistically thought about snatching Little Wyviss on my way south, but sense soon kicked in and I concluded that it would have been an anti-climax.

And yes, I may have suffered a bit for a few hours on the top, but I wouldn’t have swapped the experience for anything.

But I’m not about to begin reading Persuasion for the first time.
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old danensian
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Re: Hanging on to Quinag: just a breeze?

Postby 2manyYorkies » Thu Jun 10, 2021 10:49 pm

I got about twenty pages into Persuasion before giving up.
Quinag is one of the iconic mountain days (and nights, in your case,). Great report.
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Re: Hanging on to Quinag: just a breeze?

Postby Mal Grey » Fri Jun 11, 2021 12:23 pm

A wonderful description of what sounds like a magical experience, despite the stressful moments! Your descriptions, especially of the little things that caught your eye, are very evocative. The pictures ain't bad either!

I've spent a few nights clinging to the inside of tents in wild places, as they've turned inside out on my face, though none quite as high up. There is no feeling like the coming of sunrise and the relief of surviving the night! Fortunately the summer nights are short up there.
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Re: Hanging on to Quinag: just a breeze?

Postby BlackPanther » Fri Jun 11, 2021 5:21 pm

Hi Nigel, glad to see you up in our neck of the woods! Quinag is a very special mountain. fantastic adventure, even with wind playing havoc with tent pegs. At least it didn't rain and the tent wasn't leaking :wink:
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