It’s 4am and it’s the first time I’ve been woken up by an alarm in 12 days. My body and brain aren’t quite sure what’s happening as I accidentally hit Ben in the face trying to stop my phone from wailing. When the internal panic subsides and my conscious brain realises it’s not work I’m getting out of bed for, the excitement creeps in. Instead of spending the ‘no mans land’ time between Christmas and New Year festering in a Baileys soaked Netflix hole, we decided to get one last wild camp in for 2018. After a very strong coffee, we started our 600 mile journey to one of the most remote regions in Scotland.
The drive was incredibly smooth and we made good time, getting to the top of Loch Lomond by sunset. Passing through this national park made me realise that it holds a really special place in my heart. When we first visited Scotland back in June last year, driving around the loch was the moment I fell in love with the Highlands. The mountains, the forest, the eerie calm of the water, it grabbed my heart and choked me, sending shivers down my arms and spine. I was slightly nervous that when we returned the feeling would be different or that I had exaggerated it and the pictures I reminisced fondly over were nothing more than a highlight reel. As we followed the A82 through Luss and the imposing figure of Beinn Dubh came into view, I relaxed. The familiar feeling of home settled in that I can only explain as my heart knowing what’s right for me before my brain is capable of processing it.
Typically, as with every road trip we seem to take, the last 10 miles are always the hardest. Optimistically we ignored a sign advising the only single track road leading towards the Knoydart peninsula was closed, due to a landslip. 45 minutes later we found ourselves doing a U-turn and praying for signal to plan a new, last minute route. After dropping a pin on the Glen Dessary estate and taking a beautifully scenic detour around Loch Arkaig, we arrived at a small and free-to-use car park.
By the time we were ready to hoist our backpacks on and hit the trail, it was 9pm. Never mind, we’ll easily find a camp spot, right? As a handy tip, I’d avoid fording a fast flowing river after a 12 hour drive and 4 hours sleep if you can. Also perhaps scrambling at midnight by dying head torch light in heavy rain, but, in fairness, it does make for a good story. It’s 1am. We found a flat-ish pitch that didn’t appear to have any streams flowing through it and I’d never felt more relieved to get the tent up. I don’t think my head even hit my sea to summit inflatable pillow before I was asleep.
Our first day was not an early start. Whilst finding a camp spot in the dark can be quite stressful, waking up to a completely unknown view is always exciting. When the sound of rain gently died away and the heat of unexpected mid-morning sun encouraged me out of my sleeping bag, the mountain range we found ourselves on the edge of, was breath-taking.
We packed up lazily, after the previous nights escapades we were in no hurry to get moving. Our late start meant we crossed paths with the only other humans we would see over our 4 day expedition. After sharing a mutual love for the great outdoors, they pointed us in the direction of a bothy that was unmarked on our map, sitting near the base of Sgurr na Ciche. Armed with the knowledge that there was a fireplace waiting for us, we set our sights on Sourlies and made it our mission to get their before nightfall.
Originally, our aim was still to concur Ladhar Bheinn. However, we were painfully aware that we would need to cover some serious ground if we were going to get anywhere close on this trip. Due to the reroute of our starting point, we had a whole new set of mountains in the way and a fair few extra miles to cover. By the time we reached the edge of Loch Nevis, the last blue light of the day was fading and we were still at least a day away from Ladhar Bheinn. We decided it was best to leave this remote giant for another trip. Refusing to give up on summiting our first Munro, we figured Sgurr na Ciche was a good alternative.
Whilst I love wild camping and am especially fond of our Terra Nova Southern Cross 2, I was excited to spend a night in a bothy. It was a first for both of us and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by how well maintained and clean it was. Other travellers had left coal, tea lights and whiskey and a doe was calmly grazing outside the front door. Sourlies felt like a vestige of times gone-by, where community meant everything and our connections were human to human not human to device. We made ourselves comfy and bedded down for the night.
I woke to the sound of rain and wind pelting against the corrugated metal roofing. It was hard to tell what time it was, as the days are short and the weather gloomy. With no real idea on the best route to Sgurr na Ciche, we settled on just going straight up. Suitably caffeinated and armed with an almond bounce ball, it was full steam ahead along the deer track running behind the bothy.
After about 15 minutes of steep ascent I was knackered. The intense rain and unseasonably warm weather meant the ground was completely saturated and getting any purchase was a challenge. With very few hours of daylight, we didn’t have the luxury of slow lunch breaks or multiple coffee stops either. A hand full (or two) of trail mix would have to do. As is usually the way with mountains, they seem to have a climate entirely of their own. Whilst we could see the sun shining through onto Loch Nevis below us, we were marching firmly into the clouds. At 750m above sea level and just after 4pm, visibility was nonexistent. If the weather remained like this in the morning, getting to the summit of Sgurr na Ciche would be impossible with only one full day left in the mountains.
Our trail mix sacrifice to the weather gods didn’t bring us much luck. We woke in the same heavy cloud we fell asleep in. Everything past arms length was grey, wet and shrouded in fog. With no idea on route, no view of the ascent and very little time, we had to abandon bagging our first Munro. Disappointing as it was, the extreme remoteness, rugged nature of the backcountry and intensity of the weather was still providing us with an epic adventure.
Now the only way was off of the mountain. This was a slow process. One foot tentatively after the other, testing patches of loose scree and rocks with our walking poles. Scrambling on our knees to grappling at sheer rock faces, we tried to avoid looking down too much. 4 hours and 600 meters of decent later, we rejoined the river we followed on our first day out in the Knoydart peninsula. Inspired by a new found appreciation for bothies, we set A’Chuil on the edge of the Glen Dessary estate as our way point.
Tucked sombrely on the edge of the glen, the sweet, ashy scent of firewood drifted up to meet us as we drew closer to our home for the night. Previous tenants had left all sorts of outback luxuries from kindling to binoculars and even a spare sleeping mat. We busied ourselves about camp for a good few hours, filtering water, drying gear and getting a good fire going. I let my mind drift away, watching the flames dance hypnotically. The usual combination of melancholy and serenity sets in as our final night and trip all draw to a close.
I walked out of Knoydart on New Years Eve with a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling of clarity that I had been missing for a long time. I’m not usually one for making resolutions, but I know that 2019 is going to be the beginning of a refreshing chapter for us. Thank you for having us Scotland, we’ll be back very soon.