An expedition into the most beautiful and untouched wild-land in Scotland.
Perhaps my most memorable and enjoyable back-packing trip of the year so far, and already I’m regretting that I didn’t save these Munros to compleat my round.
With Campbell and Pickle for company and, following the 22 mile long roller-coaster drive along the single track road to Kinloch Hourn, we set out on foot with heavily laden packs.
It had been a very busy week of guiding and with little free time I was grateful when Campbell volunteered to take on the role of logistician, planning the route and timings.
Campbell had prepared, photocopied, and laminated extracts from the Harvey map with the route carefully annotated, and I admit to having only briefly glanced at these in the car before starting to feel sick on the long car journey.🤢
An easy couple of leisurely days, or so I thought!!
Nowadays, most folk will choose to head in from Inverie to the west, approached either by ferry from Mallaig or possibly by Kayak.
For a more relaxed, sociable and comfortable trip, undeniably this sounds like the best way to tackle these 3 remotest of Munros.
Campbell and I however, decided some time ago that we would approach from Barrisdale. Steven Fallon says on his website that an approach along Loch Hourn “shows Knoydart’s most dramatic features to their best” and that was certainly a big determining factor.
Barely 100m along the track from leaving the car I slipped over on an innocuous looking patch of wet ground landing heavily on my wrist and covering myself in mud! Not the best of starts!
The continuing walk along Loch Hourn is a bit of an adventure in it’s own right. For 12km the path weaves back and forth and rises and falls, passing by ancient granny pines, innumerable picturesque burns, and the remnants of past settlements, most long since abandoned.
Arriving at Barrisdale 3 hours later, and with the equivalent of half a Munro’s worth of ascent already under the belt, I was already beginning to think that these ‘leisurely’ couple of days might be anything but!
Midgie nets donned and a liberal coating of Smidge applied, we threw the tents up with haste, emptied our rucksacks of as much excess weight as was sensible and set off up the hill. We were destined for our first Munro, Luinne Bheinn or, as it’s more affectionately called, Loony Bin!!!
Besides a couple of folk who had called it quits before making the summit and were heading down, we saw nobody else for the remainder of the day.
The ascent is simple enough, steep in parts, but to my surprise it was possible to trace a faint path for much of the way up.
From the summit of Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buidhe looks, and is, a long way away. We reckoned on 2 hours between summits.
Ditching bags at the slightly lower south top we strolled out across the easy, broad, grass-covered ridge arriving at the expertly built summit cairn just before 6pm.
Meall Buidhe offers an even finer viewpoint and with the sun already low on the horizon, the light on the surrounding hills was exquisite. The Cuillins on Skye looked a mere stones throw away, and the many burns in the glen way down below lit up like electrified tendrils.
We wasted time here on the summit, too much time, phoning home to check in and snapping away on the camera taking 10 pictures of the same scene! If we were to make it back down to Barrisdale before dark, we would need to get a hurry on.
The route down was not straight forward and covers some complex and steep terrain. There are no paths here and the ground is saturated, and rocks slippery making for slow progress.
It was as we were traversing back around the steep upper slopes of Luinne Bheinn, at a height of about 600m, that we saw what I have never before seen at anything close to this elevation on the hill before; a Badger!!
This was his time to be out and he seemed to be quite happy inquisitively foraging for food until we unwittingly disturbed him. Off he went scampering back to his set or place of hiding, crossing the steep ground with remarkable ease and sure-footedness. It was an incredible sight and one which I won’t forget for a long time.
We made it back to Barrisdale just before dark and sought refuge from the swarms of midgies in the bothy where we brewed and cooked up filled pasta for dinner.
It had been a long day, 12 hours of walking, nearly 2000m of ascent and about 30km covered. We retired to our tents.
Pickles constant licking and fidgeting about through the night ensured I got zero sleep. I felt tired and even Pickle looked less eager than usual. A coffee and bowl of porridge in the bothy brought back some life and before 7am we were off walking again.
Today’s target was Ladhar Bheinn, aka Larvern, and the route that Campbell had planned looked sensational. A combination of the best bits of several different routes taken from Cameron McNeish superb book ‘The Munro’s’ and Steven Fallon’s website.
The cloud was coming and going, hiding most of the tops, but it was warm and set to stay dry. We were definitely in for a cracker!
Stob a’ Chearcaill was the first target; it’s prominent, rocky spearhead visible from the bay. It looks menacing from afar and up-close, even more so!! To our delight, an improbable looking path weaved a cunning route up through the steep nose. Some scrambling to Grade 1 and a little bit of exposure is short lived and soon we were enjoying some easier ground as we turned through 90 degrees and descended towards Bealach Coire Dhorrcail.
En route we were treated to a rare Brocken Spectre, the first Campbell had ever seen. At one point both Campbell, Pickle & I were silhouetted against the cloud with our own individual rainbow halo, a wonderful sight. This optical phenomenon is the result of bright sunlight shining from behind the observer, casting out a shadow on the surface of the clouds below.
From the bealach the continuing ridge rises and falls in dramatic fashion with sections of easy scrambling all throughout the seemingly never ending climb!
There are so many ups and down en route to this Munro that, when tackled from Barrisdale, it is arguably one of the most challenging summits to reach in the whole of Scotland.
The final steep summit cone was veiled in mist and with the top never quite in sight, it was like climbing a stairway to the heavens!
The first cairn reached is not the summit but marks the start of our descent route. We were grateful to leave bags here for the short walk along the flat ridge to the true summit at 1020m.
The views from the summit came and went as the mist swirled around below. Glimpses of the turquoise waters of Loch Hourn and the sandy shore of Barrisdale Bay reminded us that we still had a long way to go!!
We soaked up the atmospheric conditions, took pictures galore and cursed ourselves at not having booked ‘Peter’ the boatman to ferry us back to Kinloch Hourn. From the summit I left a speculative and desperate sounding voice message on his landline knowing that even if the message was picked up, it would likely be too late!
Our descent was down the north east ridge, which was spectacularly narrow. Whilst there are no specific difficulties (strong winds aside) I’m sure that the ridge would intimidate some. For the most part the ridge is never any wider than the faint path which runs along the crest and, with alarming drops on both sides, particularly in the upper sections, any slip would have serious consequences.
The Devils Ridge on the Ring of Steall is like a runway by comparison!
Dropping to the Allt Coire Dhorrcail we crossed over and cooled tired feet in the crystal clear water before following the superb stalkers path which runs high above the gorge. The setting is breathtaking and a walk into Coire Dhorrcaill from Barrisdale would be a 5 star route in any guide book were it not so inaccessible. Healthy trees, well out of reach of the deer, envelope the steep and craggy hillsides. The verdant plant life and sheer diversity of flora and fauna is evidence of a landscape that has escaped interference from man. Like a lost world or scene from Jurassic Park, Campbell and I were both in awe of the beauty of our surroundings.
All good things, however, must come to an end and soon we were back down at camp and packing away our kit. The ‘early finish’ I had expected just the day before now a distant memory.
Shouldering my heavy pack and with weeks of long, back to back mountain days in my legs, the thought of the walk back along Loch Hourn was not something I savoured!
Progress felt slow and the strong afternoon sunshine sapped the last reserves. We shared out the remaining fruit pastilles from Campbell’s stash and cursed at the kayaker who glided effortlessly by on the tide without so much as dipping an oar.
Eventually we returned to Kinloch Hourn. That innocuous looking patch of mud was given a wide berth.
Pausing stopwatches back at the car the stats mirrored, almost exactly, those of the day previous.
In two days we had covered 60km and climbed 4000m of ascent and, without sleep, it had been a tough few days.
I’m glad it was Campbell’s turn to drive!
Knoydart is a very special place indeed and my memories of this trip will live long in the memory, of that I am sure.