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Birthday treat in Sutherland & Dalwhinnie

Birthday treat in Sutherland & Dalwhinnie

Postby EmmaKTunskeen » Wed Apr 18, 2018 10:37 am

Corbetts included on this walk: Ben Loyal, The Fara

Date walked: 03/04/2018

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Sutherland was in my sights for a birthday treat this year and my original plan was to head up (i.e. from where I live in the South Downs) alone. But a couple of Downs-walking friends had expressed an interest in the Highlands, so I invited them to tag along.

By the time the date came around, we were still in the throes of this excellent winter and that meant a bit of a gear-change in my plans. The two friends, Richard and Sarah, don't have crampons etc, so I needed Plan Bs and Cs to make sure they had a) a safe return and b) a good time. Suddenly, unwittingly, I was going to be kind of responsible for stuff :shock:

3rd April - Brighton to Acheninver (Achiltibuie)
From a 4am Brighton deparure, we arrived at Acheninver at about 5pm. Stac Pollaidh's top was in cloud, and Fhidhleir and Ben More Coigach were simply nowhere to be seen, shrouded as they were in clag. It was pointless describing them to R & S, so I just had to hope they'd appear in the morning.
ImageStac Pollaidh topless by Emma Kendon

We'd booked into Acheninver Lodge for the night. I'd not stayed there before, but it was my birthday treat for me because this is my favourite corner of the world. A group of 7 who were meant to have the big room had cancelled because it was further from Oban than they'd realised :crazy: , so we 3 were put in there by Ruth, the owner. After a wander down to the very gneiss shoreline, we settled into a cosy evening of curry and cake.
ImageBirthday cards at Acheninver Lodge by Emma Kendon

4th April - Acheninver to Tongue via Knockan Crag and Sandwood Bay
In the morning I was up early. On seeing Fhidhleir had appeared, I headed out in my pjs to drink in the scenes and the sounds. It was the first time I'd seen these hills in snow, and they looked beautiful, especially accompanied by the morning sounds of plover and finch.
ImageFhidhleir and BMC 6am by Emma Kendon
ImageBeinn Ghobhlach and An Teallach on show 7.43am by Emma Kendon
ImageAcheninver Lodge - Horse island - and out to Summer Isles 7.50am by Emma Kendon

My original plan had been either to do Plan A) a Fhidhleir circhuit, with views over the Assynt beauties, or Plan B) Beinn an Eoin for a look at Sgurr Tuath, but that was before I saw how white they were. Even if I could get my friends up and down safely in soft snow rather than ice, I envisaged it might mean dragging them through snowy bog with no views at the tops (if we could even get that far), and a possible plummet down the Sgurr Tuath cleft if the cloud was really down, which wouldn't be a great start. Even on my own I might have gone for Plan C) beach! - and when my pals woke up, after a look at Fhidhleir and whispers of "Where did that come from?!" they were in agreement.

On route, why not stop off at Knockan Crag, I suggested, since I never had. We'd get some height, and we had bags of time. In the event, it worked perfectly as an introduction to winter up here for Richard especially, even with the comfort he's used to of a path. We stopped at the Stac Pollaidh layby, where the cloud still hadn't shifted, but they could see the picture of what the top looks like, and to admire the view down Loch Lurgainn.
ImageLoch Lurgainn and Cul Beag flank from SP cp by Emma Kendon

As we headed up the crag, two of us taking in the Moine Thrust info, and the other not really interested, but keen to get his walking started (fair enough!), we had a bit of sleet, a bit of snow, and a lot of smiles :) .
ImageMoine schist on top of Durness limestone - da thrust by Emma Kendon
ImageSarah and Richard on Knockan Crag by Emma Kendon
Image008 Me on Knockan Crag by Richard
Another friend had recently remarked on how she couldn't get her head round all the dead sea creatures you're walking on when you're walking on rock, and as we looked at the pipe rock and crustacea info especially, her words came back to mind.

Back down and driving out along the wilds, past Loch Assynt, Ardvreck Castle and on the Kylesku Road, we paused to marvel at Quinag. I've still only walked Sail Ghorm, and that was in pouring rain and clag, so I'll go back and do the rest, along with Sgorr Tuath this summer I hope.
ImageQuinag complete by Emma Kendon

We stopped again at the Kylesku Bridge for Richard to take photos and had a chat about the engineering and design, which one of the engineers had explained to me a couple of years ago. Then on to Blairmore for our jaunt to Sandwood Bay, by which time the sun had come out. On our way a huge golden eagle flew over us, but I couldn't look for long as I was at the wheel.

Our views across to Suilven and Canisp, 35 odd miles away, and to Foinaven and Arkle (also on my intentions-list for warmer weather) were a joy as we walked the easy path to the bay.
ImageCanisp and Suilven from Sandwood Bay path by Emma Kendon
ImageFoinaven and Arkle from Sandwood Bay path by Emma Kendon

As we approached the bay, four or so miles later, our view to the left was sun and golden dunes which Richard likened to Norfolk, and to the right was the bleak abandoned Sandwood farmhouse, alone on the moor above Sandwood Loch, with An Grinan looming above, head in and out of clouds. What a mood-contrast!
ImageSandwood Bay in sun after Knockan sleet and snow - W by Emma Kendon
ImageSandwood Loch and bleakness - E by Emma Kendon

Cape Wrath was just a few miles to the north, and there were a few other people who, like us, had headed to the bay for some sun and view, some with bikes (having not parked them at the bike rack on the John Muir maintained track).
A buzzard caught my eye as it made for a ledge in the rock to our left. The keen-eyed will see it sitting in the middle of the picture below, belly towards us:
ImageBuzzard above Sandwood Bay by Emma Kendon

Sarah had said she wanted to be better at identifying birds, and I said that if she heard a meowing from the sky, look up and expect to see a buzzard, but if she heard a croaking, look up and expect to see a raven. Helpfully, on our walk out, the buzzard got into a talons/claws fight with a raven right over our heads, the one meowing, the other croaking, and Sarah remarked on how helpful they'd been :lol:

Somehow I'd forgotten about Am Buachaille, the sea-stack, but remembered as soon as I saw it. A couple of days later we met a guy who with two other "old men" had climbed the three old men. Apparently, climbing this one had involved quite a lot of splashing...
ImageLooking south at Am Buachaille by Emma Kendon
ImageAm Buachaille by Emma Kendon

A bite to eat, gulp of tea, a cheery wave, and we picked up litter and headed on our way to Tongue (via chocs and Smoo-with-fulmars at Durness).
ImageHappy Richard and Sarah on the beach by Emma Kendon
ImageSarah gathering plastic on the beach by Emma Kendon

There was no point in my describing the Kyle of Tongue hostel to R&S because they wouldn't believe me, so it was great to see their faces when they came in. What a thoroughly lovely place it is. This was my third stay, and while last time, I'd run down the road to photograph an osprey, after some golden eagle watching at the broch, this visit was not to be a bird-fest.

A checking of messages told me a walker I met last year had slipped 50m off a crag at Tarmachen and was "shaken, not stirred" he said. While alarming, it did give me the opportunity to have a proper chat with R&S about Ben Loyal the next day as we sat round the toasty peat fire. Happily, they agreed we'd go as high as we safely could, but if we hit a point where they couldn't go any further because of having no crampons etc, we'd turn back or explore lower down. I wondered if Richard was actually a bit apprehensive - he'd opened my map and expected to see lots of little green lines but was faced with nothing of the sort. Welcome to the lovely freedom of pathless walking :D

5th April - Ben Loyal
Last August I'd been ogling Ben Loyal from a quick walk along the Moine Path and really wanted to walk it on this visit.
ImageBen Loyal in afternoon loveliness by Emma Kendon

It's such a shapely beauty I was frustrated that I couldn't fit it in then, so fingers crossed we could do it today.

We breakfasted and headed south to the erstwhile David Mitchell family farmhouse of Ribigill where I parked up and we donned our gear. The track was wet underfoot but spirits were high, a woodpecker was drumming away to our right, and we could see our quarry, elegant, lovely and steep ahead.
ImageBen Loyal woth Richard and Sarah by Emma Kendon
ImageBog boggity bog by Emma Kendon
ImageBoggity bog then up there by Emma Kendon

After our boggy walk in, we hit the snow-line and joy of joys it was powdery on top of the tussocks and heather. Though steep it made for steady, non-slippery ascending. Richard was surprised to find how slow-going this steep, snowy climb was, but he soon got used to the pace and accepted it. Where the snow got a little bit crusty I showed them how to kick in and edge, but really we were good and safe. I tend not to walk with sticks but I'd got them out to cross the burn at the foot and kept them out, which was actually good for keeping a steady pace to the north top, Sgor Chaonasaid. R&S slowed down quite a bit behind me, but it was good because it meant they were being extra careful (we just don't get ascents like this on the Downs - obviously!). I was going to crack on ahead to take a photo of them from above, but hit a patch which was just a little more airy and hairy than I wanted them to cross without being very nearby if needed. They kicked in and edged and together we came to the top.
ImageSgor Chaonasaid by Emma Kendon
ImageHappy Sarah and Richard on Sgor Chaonasaid by Emma Kendon

After a pause for Richard to get his breath back, we explored the rocks on the tor for a good lunch spot. The conditions were the best I've had - powdery snow, sunshine and a view so clear I could make out the Orkney Islands and Dunnet Head (the little white blob right of centre).
ImageDunnett Head and zoom to Hoy by Emma Kendon

Bearing in mind how dismal the Easter weekend had reportedly been, I really wasn't expecting this.
ImageElephant by Emma Kendon

ImageView East from Sgor Chaonosaid by Emma Kendon

ImageView SE with Ben Klibreck back right by Emma Kendon

ImageKyle of Tongue by Emma Kendon

Safe in our powdery snow, and taking care, we could just enjoy exploring. A little hands-on scrambling, and definite kicking into the deep snow up in the crevices between the rocks. I urged R&S to check every foot placement before committing their weight, and coming down one especially steep, though short, section, I went first, facing into the mountain and climbing down backwards (only about four steps). Although I suggested they did the same, Richard came down forwards and promptly slipped on his bum. He didn't slide far, just a couple of feet, and I'd braced myself beneath him ready to break his fall, but it was a genuinely handy lesson in when he might want to turn into the hill and have his weight better distributed.

After a bite of lunch we headed for the true summit, An Caisteal, which looked fairly benign across what I called a "meadow", though with a possibly impenetrably icy scramble at the top - we'd see.
ImageMagnificent An Caisteal summit by Emma Kendon

To get off the north top tors, we had to descend a fair bit back to the flat of the wide ridge. It was still snowy, not icy, but very steep, so I went first, sometimes walking sideways, sometimes edging, but constantly checking we were on safe ground. Out on the "meadow", however, the wind got up. Not bowling-over wind but enough to send sharp little icicles into our faces. Sarah and I pulled our buffs over our faces and I put my hood up, but Richard had no hood and no buff. I had a balaclava in my trouser pocket which he put on, a bit reluctantly at first, but soon glad for the comfort, and making mental notes for himself of kit he might want if he's interested in doing this kind of stuff again.

That also meant he was happy to go on, though we'd nearly bailed out just a bit earlier . Still, the summit was not to be because revealed beneath the wind-torn snow was a long wide stretch of icy ground, 50m below the summit trig point. So we called it a day and set about descending out of the wind.
ImageVery moody An Caisteal by Emma Kendon

The descent was pretty slow, with much contouring to avoid any dramatic slides, and soon we found our own footprints so we followed them back out. I think we only had a couple of thigh-deep bog-plunges... :lol: The sun was so bright on the steeper slopes, I had no concerns of snow icing over in the afternoon which made it all much more relaxing!
ImagePost-icy-bail-out descent by Emma Kendon
ImageBeautiful shapely Ben Loyal by Emma Kendon
ImageCoos by Emma Kendon

A really beautiful day on a beautiful mountain, and for me, a good little confidence-boost. I'm not a leader - it's not something I'm interested in being - but it was handy to know that in these conditions, with folk totally new to it all in terms of kit, pace, footing, wind-changes, temperature changes etc, I could keep them safe without crowding their own enjoyment. No real concern about not summiting either, as I suspect Sgor Chaonasaid is Ben Loyal's finest feature - plus it's always healthy to be humbled on a hill!

We drove down to the Crask Inn to ask about eating there the next day, after a possible Ben Klibreck. A guy had just been in after what must have been a cracking day walking both Ben Hope and Ben Klibreck, but by the time we got there, there was just a silly fella trying every whisky, with his patient wife and son in tow...

Back to Tongue to cook, and chatted with the "old man" climber/skier about bits and pieces, from the Sutherland Clearances to the charms of Faraid Head to plans for Ard Neackie's lime kilns. Then a weather-check (not good) and bed.

6th April - not Ben Klibreck
Ben Klibreck was abandoned for the day because freezing level was too low for my crampon-less buddies and the chances of cloud-free summits were even lower. So, to Plan B) a walk round Talmine Head and Achininver (the other one) Beach, followed by a visit down Strathnaver to the Rosal Clearance Village. Basically a windy blustery day which was perfect for reflecting on how exceptionally gorgeous yesterday had been :lol: Also, Rosal Village is in upheaval (again) until 30 April - which we found out when we got there. I thought it was an evocative, imaginative bit of curating, but no, it was a pile of display boards...
ImageTalmine cove by Emma Kendon
ImageScary at Talmine by Emma Kendon
ImageFarr Stone at Bettyhill by Emma Kendon
ImageSarah and Richard at broken Rosal Village display by Emma Kendon

7 April - Dalwhinne and The Fara
Leaving Tongue, we were on the road at about 9am to Dalwhinnie. With the snow/crampons issue, I'd looked to the Monadhliath/Grampians side rather than the Cairngorms, which also meant a change for me, and The Fara seemed a reasonable choice - a near-Munro, easy nav, views over a very different Highlands landscape after Sutherland (with only so much reasonable choice for us Sussex-bound folk) and a stay at Aviemore SYHA so they could see how they liked it.
ImageBen Loyal from Tongue hostel by Emma Kendon

ImageBen Hope from Tongue Hostel by Emma Kendon

ImageRichard and Sarah strike off to the Loch Ericht north dam by Emma Kendon

ImageLooking south down Loch Ericht by Emma Kendon
After our walk to the An Tochalt gatehouse (see https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/corbetts/the-fara), and above the forestry, we started to encounter snow and ice at about 700m. It was ok to begin with, but as we rose any further ascent would have been off the cards if it hadn't been for some trail-breaking footprints. I chatted with R&S because although we could get up safely, there was no way we were coming back down this way as it was too steep and icy without crampons, so we'd be committed to the long walk back along Loch Ericht. They were up for that, so on we went.

We grabbed a lunch stop on a safe, flattish patch, sheltered from the westerly wind by the ridge, which was green, and then up we went. Richard was surprised to find the top grassy - again, on the Downs, if it's snowy the wind's not generally strong enough to blow the snow off and anyway, our hill-flanks are so small that if it's blown off the top, there's very little on the sides either!
ImageSnowy and bit icy on way up by Emma Kendon

ImageSarah at top by Emma Kendon

At the summit cairns, we met the trail-breaker, a guy called Daniel, with his female friend, and thanked him for his footprints. They were heading down the way we'd all come up, so we wished them a happy day and carried on our way.
Pano west over the Monadhliath mountains by Emma Kendon

ImageGullies of the Drumochter hills by Emma Kendon

ImageView down E to Dalwhinnie by Emma Kendon

ImageGrampians pano including Ben Alder by Emma Kendon

ImageSaw ptarmigan but this isn't one by Emma Kendon

Along the ridge, we stumbled upon hare footprints and then a courting pair of ptarmigan, she already in her grey-spring plumage, tail flashing coquettishly, and he still in his white. My companions were a bit noisy and stompy, and generally less bewitched by birds 'n' beasts than I am, so the ptarmigan pair quickly scurried away.
ImageBen Alder up ahead by Emma Kendon

ImageView NE to Cairngorms by Emma Kendon, on Flickr

ImageBen Alder pano by Emma Kendon

Loch Pattack and meandering burn between Carn Dearg and Ben Alder by Emma Kendon

As the three-mile ridge stretched out before us, and the prospect of a foot-achey walk back along the loch, we hit a bealach and discussed the viability of a descent from there. Not on, as Richard discovered by gingerly inspecting the corrie and Sarah by consulting the map (she wins! :wink: ). A final steep climb up more crispy snow to the Meall Cruiaidh summit, and a happy exclamation from Richard that we didn't have to climb the hill up ahead (which was Ben Alder), it was clearly time to descend. The two of them had fallen into animated conversation about a mutual friend, but I could see deer, so I bounded ahead - not troubled by snow any more - to see what i could see before it got scared away by 'uman voices. The views were delightful - I'd never really seen Ben Alder properly before, so it was lovely to be able to soak up its contours from here.
ImageDescent in sight by Emma Kendon

ImageDeer by Emma Kendon

ImageBefore she fled from the voices by Emma Kendon

ImageLast look at Ben Alder by Emma Kendon

On our descent, involving a few burn-crossings, we found the stile recommended by WH, but it's broken. The choices were: walk back to the earlier stile, which you can see as you descend (and which I think Dogplodder took); limbo under the fence beside the stile (which two of us did); or climb over the fence right next to the stile, (which the other one of us did).
ImageBroken stile meant two limboing and one climbing over by Emma Kendon

Then down by the trees to the access road, and the long walk back to the railway crossing.

We dived into Kingussie for chips, had a beer in Aviemore, showered and got our kip, ready for the long drive back to the south of Englandshire in the morning. Thank you, wonderful Sutherland and co for another dose of your beauty as I entered another year!
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Re: Birthday treat in Sutherland & Dalwhinnie

Postby dooterbang » Thu Apr 19, 2018 12:21 am

Brilliant report! Just a wonderful area :D Your friends will be glad they joined you 8)

I was up for Easter weekend and had a ball :)
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Re: Birthday treat in Sutherland & Dalwhinnie

Postby Mal Grey » Thu Apr 19, 2018 10:41 am

Looks like a great roadtrip! A truly wonderful part of the world.

Glad to see somebody had a (slightly) longer journey over Easter than my own from Surrey to Kylesku...
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Re: Birthday treat in Sutherland & Dalwhinnie

Postby malky_c » Thu Apr 19, 2018 10:52 am

Some lovely shots on Ben Loyal, and plenty of other interesting bits there too (even the Fara isn't that bad :lol: ).
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