Stac Pollaidh - Nemesis No More

Route: Stac Pollaidh ridge and circuit

Grahams: Stac Pollaidh

Date walked: 04/05/2021

Time taken: 3.5 hours

Distance: 4km

Ascent: 500m

ImageViews stunning from near the start of the walk by Anne C, on Flickr

A bit extreme to call it my Nemesis, but despite many holidays in the area over the decades, I had never given climbing
the Peak above the Pool a thought as I’d always written it off as far too challenging given my vertigo. A helluva condition to have as someone who loves the hills but there it is :roll: I suppose it’s taken off any pressure to become a compleatist (much as I really admire those who achieve that) as there’s more chance of me winning the Lottery than making it up some of our more difficult mountains :)

ImageStac Pollaidh looms - the day's objective by Anne C, on Flickr

But I was ignorant of the fact that some years past, a fantastic new path had been built up Stac Pollaidh, taking walkers round the back of this imposing and intimidating mountain, avoiding the eroded track up its south side. Ah well, I always was late to the party... :roll:
So with a full day in Assynt to look forward to, part of a 12 day getaway which included mostly seeing family again when lockdown eased, I began to feel this potentially scary tower of sandstone, prickly as a porcupine, might just be on. I had also read some walkhighlands reports on the hill and was impressed with what looked like a reasonably large pleasant ridge on Stac Pollaidh which looked a delight to be on. ( I was completely wrong in this and like an eejit, mistook photos of folks having lunch on the slopes below the rocky tors, for the ridge itself :shock:) I knew there was no way I’d attempt the actual summit – getting onto the ridge and enjoying what looked like amazing Assynt/Coigach views would be more than enough for me. That said, if I didn’t fancy the ridge itself, then the path traced a high level moorland circuit of the mountain which looked amazing in itself.
We set off on a very windy, cold but sunny day with scudding cloud and hail showers enveloping the big stuff - An Teallach and Conival/Ben More Assynt were wrapped in heavy cloud and snow covered. But the Corbetts and Grahams beyond Ullapool looked like they were escaping the worst.

ImageThe road to Achiltibuie - Coigach peaks all around by Anne C, on Flickr

We were staying in a cottage in Badralloch near Dundonnell and the drive to Stac Pollaidh took ages because we stopped constantly to admire the incredible views. The sky was ever changing and Ben Mor Coigach, one of my favourite mountains, was lit by the most incredible light.

ImageBen Mor Coigach by Anne C, on Flickr

It was stop - start all the way as we took in the panorama of Coigach peaks which looked absolutely superb. I’ve always loved this area but already I felt I was falling in love with it all over again. Gorse was out in full bloom, smelling of coconut and a startling contrast to the brown and pink/greys of the hills and the deep blue of Loch Lurgainn.I was in 7th heaven already and we hadn't even started the walk :D

ImageAcross Loch Lurgainn by Anne C, on Flickr

A few cars were parked already when we arrived at 12 noon (we’d delayed the start due to a pretty horrible morning of rain. Amazingly the forecast was right and it began to clear just before then.)
Got the boots on and oh heck…looking up at the mountain, neck craned, it looked STEEP :(

ImageStac Pollaidh...aiming for the break in the ridge by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageThe old route up by Anne C, on Flickr

I felt exhausted already, a common occurrence since re-starting hill walking after a long break due to lockdown! Our legs had got used to reasonably long walking on the flat tarmac through our local Pollok Country Park but despite me running a couple of times a week, this didn’t seem to have helped at all in keeping my hillwalking muscles in good nick. We had climbed Beinn Fionnalidh the previous week and had literally panted and puffed our way up it.
I noticed a tiny figure silhouetted against the sky, obviously standing on a projection of rock on the ridge – oh how I wished I was up there with all the hard work done! :cry:

Stop moaning for heaven's sake, I thought to myself as we set off through the gate and immediately began to climb but in quite a pleasant way. As we ascended the open moorland, the great pink sandstone steps of the 'new' path took us up nicely what would otherwise have been a thigh burning slope if we’d gone straight up. The views behind and around to Cul Beag and Ben Mor Coigach, rising so beautifully above Loch Lurgainn, were just stupendous.

ImageCul Beag on the right..Cul Mor on left by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageCul Mor and Cull Beag from the circuit path by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageViews stunning from near the start of the walk by Anne C, on Flickr

Chris had climbed the hill about 30 years ago with his brothers and recognised the original route, just visible below the crags at the eastern end. But this excellent path was taking us gradually higher at an easier angle, on a solid, uneroded stone staircase which wound high over the big eastern shoulder. We were both slightly concerned about how windy it would be once we rounded the corner and felt the full force of the northerly wind – it was Arctic cold. In fact, on some of the higher hills, the MWIS was warning of - 15C in wind chill.

ImageShower arriving by Anne C, on Flickr

Cul Mor, another mountain I have always loved being on, had great cloud shadows sweeping across its impressive slopes. Sunlight lit up the knolly, undulating rock-dotted moorland, making the whole scene really quite jaw dropping in grandeur and classic Assynt. But then it ramped up a notch or three as Suilven came into view, rearing like something prehistoric above Loch Sionascaig and adding to the feeling that we were in a Lord of the Rings landscape, truly otherworldly and like nowhere else that I have ever seen. :o

ImageInverpolly in sunshine and cloud by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageSuilven from Stac Pollaidh, NW highlands by Anne C, on Flickr

The path climbed ever up, steepening slightly but always feeling very secure underfoot though at times we both thought it must have been built by 6 foot plus guys with enormously long legs! Our wee short legs were having to work a fair bit on many of the steps :roll:

ImageFinal slopes to the ridge on a great path by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageFrom the stone staircase - Cul Beag by Anne C, on Flickr

Another 10 minutes of climbing, an hour or so from setting off and the path was making its final steep climb beneath the eastern crag, taking us safely and remarkably easily onto the ridge itself.
Wow – here we were and I’d finally made Stac Pollaidh! I was thrilled beyond words to be honest, which is a bit pathetic I know but I just felt so chuffed to be here.

ImageCul Mor from near the ridge - final section by Anne C, on Flickr

Ben Mor Coigach was framed beautifully by the vertiginous rock pinnacle to our left, adding to the spectacle with Loch Lurgainn sparkling below. It was absolutely magnificent :o :o

ImageLookng through the gap at the top to Loch Lurgainn by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageBen Mor Coigach beyond the loch by Anne C, on Flickr

I don’t think I’ve seen a view quite like that from any other mountain in Scotland – lochs and lochans setting off the inselberg mountains, one minute in shadow, the next lit brightly as the cloud cleared or else veiled in white as a big shower came in.I climbed Suilven on a solo trip many moons ago and the view was just outstanding.But this equalled it, I thought.

ImageMyself with Suilven behind by Anne C, on Flickr

Behind us, Suilven was being swept by some spectacular weather – for anyone who loves taking photographs (and I take them endlessly) it was heaven too!

ImageSuilven, Quinag (behind), Canisp and Cul Mor, Inverpolly by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageSuilven' Caisteal Liath and Quinag by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageEver changing light... by Anne C, on Flickr

But what brought me up short now was just how narrow the ridge was :shock: – as we walked onto it, it was almost a case of looking straight down the other side into the void! It was also a short ridge width wise, set between the imposing stacks of pancake like rocks. The wind was buffeting us a bit and Chris began wandering about looking for somewhere to sit out of it – all I was interested in was sitting in the widest section :lol:

There was another couple at the start of the tricky west top but they stayed pretty much there before descending again; the wind certainly was a factor for anyone contemplating climbing the proper summit.
So we sat down and got out the gammon and cheese sandwiches, admiring the views but after 15 mins my vertigo began to kick in. It's a horrible feeling of panic and light headedness. I've never been able to conquer it and greatly admire those who do! When I stood up, my legs had that awful wobbly feel :roll: and I was really keen to go down. So Chris began going along a different path, narrower and more gravelly and I followed, but I was worried about not knowing where it went beyond a crag and so we retraced our steps.

ImageDescending a different way by Anne C, on Flickr

As ever, the main path felt a bit steeper going down than it had going up but it is so well built and relatively wide, that it felt very stable underfoot and there was no exposure as such. In 5 mins, we had reached the circuit path again and we continued on to where the alternative descent track came down, the one I hadn’t fancied. No doubt it was perfectly fine but once I get a preferred route in my mind, there's no persuading me otherwise :)

With the hard work done so to speak, it was time to enjoy finish my favourite hobby of eating once again, but I could hardly sit down now, the views were so outstanding and the light was constantly changing over Suilven and what must be one of the world’s most wondrous, ancient landscapes.

ImageInverpolly National Nature Reserve, North West Highlands by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageHail shower travelling our way by Anne C, on Flickr

Yet much as I was just stunned by the views, being in Assynt always leaves me feeling a bit melancholy too. For several years when my two sons were young, we used to holiday for two weeks in Inverkirkaig near Lochinver. Memories of the boys playing on their bikes, occasionally doing a hill with me (Quinag was a favourite) beach days at Achmelvich and Clachtoll, dinner out sometimes in the Lochinver Larder or take out Venison and Cranberry pies which we had in the chalet, fishing off the rocks or out in a boat - happy times. Now they are independent adults of course, great company and getting on with their own lives, but I often really miss those years when they were wee - despite them being exhausting at times! I suppose you forget those bits :D I‘ve never found that empty nest syndrome ever really goes away.

Quite a few people passed us simply doing the circuit round the mountain. I watched a couple ascending the eastern top, as quick and easy as mountain goats, before nipping back down. We found out later that they were actually two good friends of my son and his wife who were out for an afternoon run and were up and down in about 90 mins! Oh to be young, fit and nimble and with a decent head for heights :crazy:

ImageChris glad to finally get his lunch by Anne C, on Flickr

Showers were sweeping across Assynt but miraculously missing us. I could have stayed at that spot all afternoon but it was bitterly cold in the wind just sitting and after 20 mins or so, it was time to go move.
The path took us easily down the west shoulder of the mountain, keeping us quite high up and giving fabulous views all around. Skye was just visible on the horizon and the headlands around Inverkirkaig and Lochinver sat amidst a deep blue North Atlantic. What a coastline. Way to the north, we could see all the lighthouse at Stoer.

ImageLooking west - Skye just visible and the Summer Isles by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageTowards the coast from the ridge by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageLooking north - to Stoer Lighthouse by Anne C, on Flickr

Looking up at Stac Pollaidh’s crags and cliffs looming above Chris said – ‘this is no place to be if there’s an earthquake!’ I read later that some of the strange outcrops have actually collapsed in recent years, not surprising given how exposed the mountain is to the weather.

ImageThe western summit from the circuit path by Anne C, on Flickr

A big shower came in and it was time to throw the waterproofs on, but even before we got them out it had passed. It made a beeline for Ben Mor Coigach, wrapping its peaks in cloud and hail...

ImageDescending the western shoulder by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageHeavy shower missing us again by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageBen Mor Coigach looking atmospheric by Anne C, on Flickr

But in minutes, it had passed and the sun was out, lighting everything up again...

ImageSunshine for the final section to the car by Anne C, on Flickr

About 40 mins after leaving our lunch spot, we arrived back at the car park, exhilarated by what was quite a short day out but which was stunning from the off and yet only got better and better.
I will look at Stac Pollaidh now with a kinder eye, no longer my Nemesis but a brilliant mountain which must have some of the greatest views in the country. Definitely one to enjoy in different seasons too – we had the duns/browns/greys of spring; but I’d love to see it in summer greens and especially in autumn colours of tawny and amber. Peak of the Pool – we will be back!

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Anne C

User avatar
Activity: Walker
Pub: Any wild camping spot
Mountain: Quinag
Place: North Uist
Gear: Zamberlan Boots
Member: john Muir Trust;NTS;RSPB;Historic Scotland
Ideal day out: Mountain beside the coast or coastal walk with lots of wildlife spotting

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Grahams: 32
Donalds: 29
Wainwrights: 1
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