An Autumn Night on Suilven


The Journey North


In November I booked a week off work with only a vague plan to head north to Assynt. I did have one particular objective in mind, and that was to camp on or near to the summit of Suilven. Lately I’ve been trying to make the most of my time out of the office, and so I always have a bag packed and ready to go at a moments notice. This includes all of the usual kit for hiking and wild camping as well as enough food to keep me fed for a few days: expedition meals, granola bars, bags of mixed nuts and dark chocolate.

I am based in Edinburgh and not currently in possession of a car, and so my journey north involved three bus journeys, from Edinburgh to Lochinver via Inverness and Ullapool and taking just over 7 hours. As with every trip, it was exciting to pick up my (typically weighty) rucksack and set out from my flat to catch the first bus. The moment I walk out and into the fresh air for an adventure, I instantly start to feel more free and open, and begin the process of leaving the weight of a busy city life behind me. The anticipation of heading out to the wilderness as well as the journey itself is all part of the fun.

The weather happened to be brilliant as I travelled north, with sunshine streaming in through the large coach windows and views of stunning mountain vistas for much of the way. After a couple of brief stops and changing to increasingly retro buses, I arrived at the Lochinver Bunkhouse just after sunset. I had a quick meal and went to bed for some kip before setting out on my hike the following day.


 


The Approach to Suilven


That morning, I set out on the road from Lochinver to Glencanisp Lodge, snacking only on a granola bar and some nuts for breakfast. I couldn’t quite believe how lucky I had been with the weather, although I knew it was due to change at some point in the next 24 hours. I just hoped it would hold out until after my summit camp.

I was excited to see Suilven again. I had felt drawn to it since I had passed by earlier in the year on the Cape Wrath Trail. Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of it on the approach to Glencanisp Lodge, although from here only the most western summit, Caisteal Liath, is visible as a rocky mound, with its distinctive ridge hidden behind. At the lodge there is a small honesty shop hosted by the Assynt Foundation where I stopped to pick up a few extra snacks. I also made myself a cup of coffee and sat out in the sun, enjoying the autumn colours and listening to the bird song. I later found out that the Assynt Foundation was formed just before the community of Assynt bought the 44,400 acres of land which are home to Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beag in 2005.


 


From Glencanisp Lodge, there is a vehicle track heading east, continuing on past Suilven and Canisp and eventually connecting to the A835 near Elphin. This track also passes Suileag bothy which I considered staying at if the weather looked like it was going to turn grim. Although the walk in to Suilven is long, it is not difficult due to the easy nature of the track. I really enjoyed this section, anticipating the climb to the summit of Suilven and enjoying a fairly straight forward walk in beautiful weather, a welcome change. I was also in awe of the landscape, particularly the small, still lochans reflecting the image of Suilven, now with it’s dramatic ridge line and both peaks in full view.

After passing Lochan Bhuide, there is a bridge crossing over the stream. I stopped here to get hydrated and refill my water bottles. I knew there would probably be a small water source on one of the terraces of Suilven but I also knew that it would require filtration and I didn’t want to take any chances and end up dehydrated on the top.

The path to the base of Suilven leaves the track just south of the bridge crossing. This section of footpath was a bit of a boggy mess, and it was clear that the large number of visitors to the mountain had taken its toll on the land. Fortunately, funding has recently been acquired for a path restoration project, aiming to make it more durable and to prevent further erosion.


 


On the Ridge


The ascent was very steep and hard work but it also didn’t take much time to get to the top of the ridge due to the sharp gradient. I arrived on the saddle at the same time as two other walkers approached from the south. They had kayaked in, I’m guessing along Loch Veyatie. I ditched my rucksack and went for a walk towards the east summit, Meall Meadhonach, although some cloud quickly rolled in and covered both summits for some time. I returned to collect my pack, this time heading up towards the western summit in the grey. As the clouds cleared, I decided to pitch my tent on one of the small terraces, perhaps 50 – 100 metres below the top.

The terrace, while exposed, provided a level, grassy pitch and incredible views across Assynt. There were brief showers rolling in from the east, but something special was developing as the sun dropped progressively towards the horizon. That evening, the lighting was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The sunlight made its way between the clouds, emphasising the patterned bands of moisture in the atmosphere, which softened the distant mountains of Cùl Mòr and Cùl Beag, and illuminating almost everything I could see in warm, golden hues. It was like being in a dream, or on another world, but I was simply in the right place at the right time.


 


The Morning After


During the night, the wind had picked up, creating a fair bit of tent rattle. Regardless, I had slept well, and having left the door of my inner tent open, I enjoyed the cooling breeze as the fresh air made it’s way through. I had set an alarm to ensure that I was up for dawn as I didn’t want to miss the sunrise. The sunrise, as it happened, did not disappoint.

I wasn’t the only one on the mountain that night. A family of three, a mother, father and their little girl, had camped on the actual summit, a spacious grassy plateau. As I made my way to the summit, the smell of their bacon breakfast drifted by and I couldn’t help but feel envious. They waved at me through the vent they had left open while cooking their food and I waved back. As I admired the view to the west which I hadn’t been able to see from my camping spot, I thought about what a great thing this was to do as a family, to provide that experience for your child. After all, I was fortunate enough to have had similar experiences when I was young, and perhaps I wouldn’t now have the appreciation of nature that I do, or even have been stood there at all if I hadn’t been given this opportunity.


 


High-Level Camping Tips

For those interested in doing a similar trip, I’ve included a wee bit of wisdom below:

• LEAVE NO TRACE. Our mountains are sacred, and so deserve to be treated with the utmost respect. There should be no trace of you having visited when you leave :).

Check the weather forecast. High-level camps tend to be more exposed to the wind, and the wind speed picks up at higher altitudes. Don’t just check the forecast for the evening you plan to be up there, but also the following day as it is important to be aware if the weather is about to turn. I had a tent pole break in high winds on my first high-level camp and it is not a pleasant experience.

Research the terrain. Check maps and read walk reports for the area where you’re planning to camp high. Are there any flat/sheltered spots? Is there a water supply? Is the ground grassy or rocky? It would be no good to just turn up and not find a single decent place to pitch.

Be confident in your gear. If the terrain is rocky, can you safely pitch your tent? Is your tent suitable for the forecasted wind speeds? Is your sleeping bag warm enough? A sleeping mat with a bit more padding is useful where you anticipate sleeping on more rocky ground.

Carry plenty of water. On ridges and mountain summits, water sources tend to be sparse. It’s important to be hydrated when you ascend, but also to ensure you have refilled your water bottles. It could be useful to carry a lightweight water filter so that any small pool of water can be used as a water source.

Be prepared but don’t go overboard. While it’s important to make sure you have all the right camping gear, warm clothing, food and water, it’s also worth remembering that it is hard work carrying a heavy pack up to altitude. A heavy pack also compromises your balance. Try to keep it as light as you can whilst also carrying all of the essentials.

Use walking poles. Carrying a heavy pack up and down steep terrain will be tough on the knees. Poles can help to distribute the weight and make the walk easier on your legs, but also improve your balance and keep you steady.


 

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