Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Rubha Reidh: Slaggan Bay to Poolewe

Landing and setting camp had been a tortuous affair - chilled, wet and a little tired after nearly eight hours on the water, the midges gave no quarter. And so it was with no small sense of relief that I woke to the rustling of the tent and a light offshore breeze. In fact stronger winds were forecast that day, that being in part the reason for paddling the route we had, making best use of the calm seas the day before and leaving less than 20km to paddle into the shelter of Loch Ewe from the camp.
Eventually and reluctantly we carried the boats back to the water, keen to at least minimise the distance we would have to push into the fresh headwinds forecast.
Turning into Loch Ewe, the Torridon mountains providing a dramatic back drop and high level cloud indicating the change in weather to follow.
Less than an hour later the wind shifted and very suddenly picked up. Taking a few images in the first moments as the breeze went from F2 to F5/6 in seconds, I soon put the camera away. With a constant F5/6 on the beam and some much stronger gusts, it was a reminder just how quickly things change on the water and an exhilarating run into Poolewe.
Sunset, from a more sheltered and blissfully midge free beach that night.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The best and worst of the north-west coast: Rubha Reidh

Of the major headlands on Scotland's mainland coast, Ardnamurchan Point is perhaps the best known, marking a traditional divide between more sheltered waters to the south and the exposed north-west. But to my mind at least, it is Rubha Reidh which marks a more significant divide, the seas north of here losing the protection afforded by the Hebrides, from the Atlantic. As the Yachtsman's Pilot notes: Rubha Reidh and the Point of Stoer are notorious for heavy seas...but the coastline itself changes too, Torridonian sandstone forming many of the features which in part at least, are the reason I have been returning for so long.
Leaving Loch Gairloch beneath heavy skies, the sea was flat, as calm as I have ever seen it in these parts.
After passing along the west coast of Longa Island, we headed in directly to the cliffs south of Port Erradale, paddling through the first arch of many moments later.
These cliffs are riddled with caves - a low entrance to one leading to a large chamber and further cleft running approx 100m further still, opening through a narrow slot into the bay beyond. The exit was no more than a few inches wide, forcing a retreat, palming off the smooth walls to either side there being no space to paddle.
A perfect and almost entirely deserted beach further north...
...sea thrift blending with the smooth sandstone cobbles. And Just out of sight while we enjoyed the sun ashore, two nudists happily waved as paddled on, a rare sighting so far north.
Approaching the lighthouse built in 1912...
...after which the cliffs grow in stature, taking on an altogether more imposing atmosphere...
...towering stacks guarding narrow passages beyond which lies the exceptional Camas Mor - having spent far longer than anticipated exploring the caves and coves of this intricate coastline, we did not land, pushing on toward our intended camp in an effort to beat the rain rolling in slowly from the north.
Passing through the islands at the eastern end of the headland with the unmistakable bulk of Suilven clearly visible ahead, though it was gone moments later...
...and with it our chance to set camp in Slaggan Bay before the rain began. If a picture speaks a thousand words, this one says nothing of the lamentable combination of evening calm, rain and midges. If we had seen the west coast at it's best a little earlier, then this was perhaps its worst. Neither of us moved from the tents that night...
...waking slowly to a different world.

All clear to Cape Wrath

Arkle, from the Norse 'ark fjell' meaning flat topped, is a mountain I have wanted to return to for some time and though I had not been to the summit, having walked the lower boulder strewn slopes once before, I was under little illusion about the nature of the route I intended to run. The summit is certainly broad and flat, and while the slopes beneath are not as steep as some, real concentration is required to maintain any kind of pace on either ascent or descent.
The usual approach starts beside Loch Stack, the broad western flank of Arkle dominating the view, quartzite crags plunging to the steep screes below.
A rough track then climbs steadily towards the col between Arkle and Meall Horn from which there are wonderful views across Fionaven whose Munro status was lost following a survey in 2007, ending years of inconsequential debate - those who feel they have done something of lesser worth on reaching the summit of either Arkle or Fionaven (both Corbetts) should perhaps reconsider their stance.
Beyond that, there is little in the way of paths of any sort and some heather bashing is required to reach the rubble above - broken by superb slabs which ease progress until one is forced to negotiate the quartzite boulders.
Such is the nature of Arkle - glistening stone amongst which there are splashes of colour...
...high and lonely lochans overshadowed by towering cliffs and deep gullies, it is a raw, uncompromising landscape.
On the final approach to the summit, a level causeway precedes the last short climb after which the view north is clear to Cape Wrath. I spent longer than I should have on the top, sat in the small hollow beneath the summit cairn, soaking in the sun and long views to the Summer Isles, across the mountains of Coigach and Assynt and to the north, the surf at Sandwood Bay clearly visible even from here.
The descent proved quicker than I thought it might, though I cut a large corner, descending a dry gully and thereby bypassing the worst of the rock hopping to rejoin the track above Loch Stack shortly before it drops through the pines. Trout darted in the streams I crossed and a cuckoo called as I retraced my steps along the loch to finish a route out of all proportion to its size. 
Back at sea level, looking across the head of Loch Laxford towards Fionaven (left) and Arkle (right). There never was any doubt about Arkle's status as a Munro, measuring a mere 787m - indeed it is only just a Corbett - but it remains one of the finest summits in the far north-west.

Sandwood Bay

I wasn't party to the conversation which followed our visit, but a local lady's confession about Sandwood Bay did not entirely surprise me. Never been, she had said. It's haunted too, she affirmed, though I doubt that was the reason. There are a great many myths that surround Sandwood Bay, from mariners to mermaids and the usual tales of buried treasures in the shifting dunes. I was rather more keen to see how the surf forecast differed from reality, with the prospect of landing a loaded boat prominent in my mind. Northerly winds between F5 and F7 had created choppy seas but the swell was low and the surf was predicted to be no more than 3ft. If the winds dropped, there would be a window to round Cape Wrath. Not that one needs a particular reason beyond just being here. 
Bog cottons on the approach, blown in the wind beneath the broad summits of Beinn Dearg Mhor and Creag Riabach.
And the first view for most who approach by land, of Sandwood Bay. It is hard to convey the scale of the place and this image most certainly does not do it justice. I have walked in several times now but every time the effect is the same. No less intimidating and inspiring for a slight familiarity, it is a wild, evocative scene. One I am determined to return to next in the kayak.
Am Buachaille, the much photographed sea stack and one which I had hopes of climbing following an interesting ascent of The Old Man of Stoer some years ago. It is one of the more challenging stacks to climb - not so much because of it's technical difficulty (two pitches at HVS with sparse protection) but more because of the swim required on the return. More than one party has been swept a good distance beneath the cliffs here. It is climbs like these that first inspired thoughts of sea kayaking.
Completely unlike the crumbling Torridon sandstone - how stacks like Am Bauchaille survive the winter storms is remarkable - many beautiful Lewisian gneiss formations upon which the Torridonian sediments were deposited, are exposed above the beach.
Looking south, the wind has eased and the surf appears to have dropped. The forecast had predicted NW swell at 5.5ft and surf at 2-3ft. On arrival the swell was all of that with larger waves between 6 and 7ft breaking beyond the surf line. It would have been an interesting landing, though of course it was all academic - this is another trip that will have to wait. The brief weather window was closing rapidly with gale force winds returning imminently and in combination with a spring tide, despite the low swell - due to drop almost completely - the gamble was not worth the risk. Had we been approaching the headland as part of a longer trip, I think perhaps we would have seized the opportunity, but for now, this wild beach, ancient mariners and mermaids will continue to haunt my dreams.