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Knoydart: outerworld or underworld
by old danensian » Tue May 08, 2018 5:33 pm
Munros included on this walk: Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buidhe (Knoydart)
Date walked: 21/04/2018
Distance: 41.4 km
Ascent: 2490m9 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Kinlochourn – Barrisdale
11.4km; 390m ascent; 3h
Barrisdale – Luinne Bheinn – Meall Buidhe – Barrisdale – Kinlochourn
30km; 2100m ascent; 12h 20m
Knoydart: the word evokes an immediate sense of isolation, remoteness, inaccessibility.
Knoydart? The question provokes expectation and excitement, igniting a fire in the belly that feeds the voracious appetite of eagerness and brings you close to the gluttony of over-enthusiasm and youthful invincibility.
“Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” I’m told. “You always suffer on the second day.” I wait for the bit about not being as young as I used to be, but it remains unspoken.
So, I pore over maps, get absorbed by reports of epics and derring-do, idyllic days and nights spent on high watching the stars. Everything is possible.
Then, the descent into the real world began. At the foot of the twisting 1-in-4 strip of crumbling tarmac and gravel that lands you in Kinlochourn, the battalions of reality confronted naïve, well-meaning anticipation. They were led by Charon in human form, the mythological Styx ferryman who charged a fee for the dead to enter the Underworld. He masqueraded as the man whose palm must be crossed with at least two coins for each day your car is left. On hearing my plans, his scepticism about my ability prompted a debate about whether I should be paying six: we settled on four.
“And it’s a good four hours to Barrisdale,” was his parting shot – way beyond my optimistic expectation.
However, optimism was still in the ascendency as I strode through tunnels of rhododendrons, over mats of drying seaweed and the occasional carpet of crushed mussel shells. The path was flat, the view across the loch kept changing as inlet followed headland, followed yet another inlet. While birds dipped in and out of the water I hoped for a glimpse of a sea eagle - yes, naïve, I know.
But Charon must have phoned ahead and warned Cerberus about my imminent arrival. The guard of Hades, with all the evils at his command, could have his bit of fun with me before I arrived.
So, as the forecast was for bright sunny weather by noon, he threw in a couple of light showers to lull me into a false sense of security that waterproofs weren’t needed. Then, at that critical point when I should have put them on, he presented a downpour, then another, then another. Too late; already too wet. Great: I sloshed all the way to Barrisdale. Once you’re wet, you can’t get any wetter.
I knew it wasn’t going to be a beach stroll, but the relief of heading downhill after each of the negotiated knolls was tinged with the realisation that they would have to be climbed on the return. But over a thousand feet? Surely not. Well it was.
From a sketchy classical education I knew there were alternatives in the Underworld: hell or heaven. I was still banking on the heavenly option being available, but as I trudged into Barrisdale, wet-tent-hell beckoned. The original plan had been to press on until reaching the bealach at Mam Barrisdale, saving effort the following day as Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe were attempted. But Cerberus was waiting up there as well. His messenger was a bedraggled solitary figure plodding towards me as I left the ruined building at the entrance to the bay. He too shook his head as I described my plans.
“A howling gale,” he said, “and everywhere is soaking.” As a result, I left Cerberus to his own devices in the clouds above and decided that £3 would be well spent drying out in the bothy instead. Maybe heaven would make its appearance the following day.
As it was, it appeared sooner than expected. My experience of bothies has been somewhat limited and rudimentary. I did not expect mattresses, running water (from a tap), electric light … and … a flushing toilet. Life was looking up.
Then, good company arrived, from Arnisdale across the water, and, by early evening, the rain and cloud finally started to depart. Optimism brimmed over as plans were made for the following day. The Underworld was continuing to look up: the outerworld of the Rough Bounds was taking control. Even next door’s generator stopped at a sociable hour.
And so it came to pass: the next day dawned fine. As a pastel hue tipped Luinne Bheinn the generator was our alarm clock and we were all up by 6.00am, raring to go. I left the smells and sounds of slabs of sausage being fried and was walking up to Mam Barrisdale by 6.40am. All was well with the world: the prospect of Hades had been banished.
Once past the white house nestling against the trees, the path strikes up to the right, an easy gradient trodden by the passage of hooves and feet when bigger communities than today regularly travelled between Barrisdale and Inverie. Sat by the cairn at the bealach an hour later, I looked down Gleann an Dubh Lochain, tracing its route and wondering if Hades wasn’t that far away after all. I’d initially assumed that this was an old drove road; now the image of shroud clad bodies being carried to their final resting place sprang to mind. Was this, in fact, an old corpse road or coffin road? I didn’t dwell.
Instead, attention turned to Luinne Bheinn looming above to the left. I found the path. The path found the line of rusting fence posts, which in turn seemed to find the path of most resistance upwards. When the ground levelled out for a stretch at about 650m I paused, gratefully, for a breath and recollected reports of inadvertent overshooting. There was no point in having to double-back; I headed directly towards the western top. There, an obelisk-like stone protruded from the cairn as if giving “the finger” to the real top a couple of hundred metres away and a mere metre higher, and to yet another a couple of metres lower. Spoilt for choice, I opted for shelter and rest at the eastern end, able to savour Knoydart, Moidart, Kintail and the Isles across the horizon. Hell had been well-and-truly routed.
Bealach a Choire Odhair lay below. Beyond, the summit saddle of Meall Buidhe reminded me of Blencathra down in the Lake District. A mere hop, skip and jump: there in no time. The books says what? An hour and forty minutes? Nah.
I’m a sucker for a false sense of security and the concept of “just popping over there.”
Unfortunately, the flat light merged the greys, greens, khakis and shadows and hid a multitude of sins. Over two hours and umpteen undulations later …
Once resting and wheezing by the cairn on Meall Buidhe, the idea of returning to the Bealach a Choire Odhair and following the line of the fence posts in the opposite direction was firmly quashed. Cerberus was lurking out there somewhere and I wasn’t about to get lured into his machinations. My GPS suggested that at least an additional three hundred metres would have to be climbed just to get there, before negotiating the quirky line of fence posts to get back to Mam Barrisdale.
As I was now the furthest away from car, and aimed to get back to it (and then, optimistically Ayrshire) that evening, I needed to marshal my resources if I wasn’t going to arrive back at Kinlochourn as a complete wreck.
It seemed counter-intuitive, but I headed north down Creag Dhearg, then bore bear right and down into the bowl below Carn na Saobhaidh. I hoped to follow a more gently rising traverse back up to Mam Barrisdale and avoid some brutal undulations, especially if the route of the line of fence posts earlier had been anything to go by.
The huge gnarled slabs plunging down from Choire Odhair and Carn na Saobhaidh seemed to lean over as I got lower, eying me suspiciously. I could easily imagine them cascading with rainwater, darkened by storm clouds and threatening dire consequences. Yes, Cerberus’ lair could well be up there. Instead, I spooked a small herd of deer that then kept heading down in the direction I was heading. I doubt they wanted to end up at leaping across the burn at the bottom, but it was their choice.
After suffering the roller-coaster undulations between Luinne Bheinn and Maell Buidhe earlier in the day, the forty minute steady rise after crossing the Abhainn nan Eildean clambering up to Mam Barrisdale was a luxurious contrast. Once more sat by the cairn at the pass, I enjoyed the view back down … and down … and down. I knew the devil and the ferryman lurked somewhere out of sight, but for now I was just going to enjoy the descent back to the bothy, Barisdale and the prospect of a mug of tea. Before …
Back in what equates to civilisation in Knoydart, I scribbled a few words in the bothy book to acknowledge the companionship of the previous evening while brewing up, then ate and drank as much as I could. Then, I shouldered my burden.
It was a gentle coastal stroll for the first mile or so but, when the roofless ruin came into view, I entered what I feared would be the Gates of Purgatory.
Charon’s idea of four hours began to materialise as reality as I slowly and stubbornly beat my retreat out of Knoydart. Faced with a four hour walk and a five hour drive I put my legs into the lowest gear possible and my brain into neutral. At least it wasn’t raining this time: I guess Cerberus must have been playing with someone else.
After the event it’s unfair to glance at the thesaurus and realise that your recollections of the walk back to Kinlochourn chime with words such as torment, torture, hell, ordeal, agony, anguish, misery and wretchedness. The only one that didn’t apply was “hopelessness” as I always knew I was going to get there: I just wasn’t quite sure when.
We were due at friends for Sunday lunch the following day at 12.30. The other half had been forewarned that I might not make it back the night before. Sleeping in a loch-side layby was a distinct possibility.
“As long as you’re home by 12.15 – or 12.00 if you haven’t had a shower,” were the instructions that kept me going.
At 7.00pm, almost twelve and a half hours after emerging from the bothy that morning, the cluster of buildings at Kinlochourn came into view after rounding yet another headland.
As soon as the bag was in the back of the car and the boots were off, relief, achievement, satisfaction and fulfilment all combined to exorcise the tougher parts of the walk out. I sat, with eyes closed snaffling the chocolate bars, bananas and biscuits that had been waiting for me in the cool-bag. I could picture the images already, without the need of a camera: endless horizons of peaks, stretches of sea, cloud-clad Cuillins, winter clinging to northern ridges, and not a person or midge in sight.
And I’m glad I’ve still got Ladhar Bheinn to go back and do. Boats or boots, I’m not sure which way yet, but I’ve now got the measure of Charon and his mates. However they dress it up, it’s heaven out there in the outerworld even if it masquerades as the underworld at times.
It’ll just be hard work, not hell. It’s Knoydart after all.
by malky_c » Tue May 08, 2018 9:51 pm
A good reminder for me to do some more walking in Knoydart - haven't been for 2 or 3 years now.
by PeteR » Tue May 08, 2018 9:54 pm
Knoydart is such a stunning place and well worth the effort. I'm not sure I could do that circuit and walk out in a oner though, so fair play to you for doing that
by Mal Grey » Wed May 09, 2018 10:15 am
That ground between the two Munros is as rough and wild as anywhere in Britain.
by BlackPanther » Wed May 09, 2018 12:34 pm
by Borderhugh » Wed May 09, 2018 6:12 pm
You might want to try Inverie next time. Its a far easier way into Knoydart.
by Fife Flyer » Wed May 09, 2018 7:43 pm
I have to agree with Hugh, the easy option is a lovely comfy B&B in Inverie.
Tackle the hills over a couple of days and enjoy the unique island mentality that only Knoydart can offer, reminds me I have to return.
by Dunblane Bagger » Fri May 11, 2018 6:41 pm
I walked in (and out) via Kinlochourn on my first venture into Knoydart and the description was perfect
It was fine on the way in as the adrenaline was pumping and the excitement of getting out into the mountains kept you going until Barrisdale. The way back out however seemed to take FOREVER, and every ascent/descent was hell.
The second time we entered Konydart we took the sea taxi from Arnisdale so this may also be an option for you too?
Obviously, the other way is to get the ferry to Inverie as previously mentioned.
Thanks for describing all of the emotions I felt when I walked in though, brought back some brilliant memories
by Michellehaining » Tue May 15, 2018 10:57 am
by Alteknacker » Fri May 25, 2018 6:40 pm
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