There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re camping, you revert to being a bit more primeval. Your caveman brain reasserts itself. I find that my internal security system kicks in and I always sleep with one ear open. It took me a moment to come round and realise what had set the alarm bells off.
Earlier in the evening I’d played the fun game of timing the wind. There was a unique noise when a gust flew over the summit above me, WHUFF..two…three…fouBOOM and the rear panel of the tent would buck and flex when it hit. When you’ve left your ipod in the car you have to make your own entertainment.
What my subconscious alarm had picked up was that the noise had changed. For most of the evening it had sounded like there was a bloke outside with a bass drum, making well timed beats in time with the wind. Now it sounded like someone had unravelled a giant roll of wrapping paper and was trying to giftwrap a present the size of a small car in a gale.
I wrestled myself back into suitable outerwear and staggered outside to investigate. The rear guyline had gone. The peg had dragged a long furrow in the soil before the guyline had given up and allowed itself to be shredded. That’s what I get for using the factory standard issue. I dug out the wee wrap of dyneema from my pack and rigged up a replacement. Tying a mini-linelok on at 1am when you’re half asleep is entertaining.
What was obvious was that the rain of the previous evening had stopped and the low cloud had lifted. I could see the orange sodium glow of the lights of Ullapool below. I slumped back into my bag and dozed off with the low dull throb of a boat engine for company and higher hopes for the morning.
That internal awareness thing did the job again, waking me with the message that the foot-end of the tent appeared to be turning pink, even though it was still 15 mins before my sunrise alarm was due to go off.
I stumbled outside to find an eerie scene. There was a strong glow just off the shoulder of Ben More Assynt, but all around my hill was a low crown of condensing cloud. It was warming up and that had a strange effect. It wasn’t misty, but everything cool was quickly gathering a layer of water droplets. I tried to catch some photos, but the front element of the lens kept condensing more and more. It was like old-school soft focus when they used to smear vaseline on the lens. I keep my camera in the porch to avoid condensation issues, but this seemed to be the reverse of the normal issue. No matter how often I wiped it, it just kept coming back. What the hell, I wasn’t here just for photos, I was here to make memories. Photos are there just to jog the memories, the memories themselves are always far more vivid and vibrant that any digital image. I took a few blurry shots before sticking the camera into my jacket to warm up.
The sunrise passed quickly, but gave sharp relief to what lay ahead, a huge contrast to the mist and gloom of the night before, now I had the whole ridge stretching out before me.
I had one small issue, I had a dribble of water, but certainly not enough for my customary porridge and two cups of coffee. It would have to be hard tack, there was bound to be water eventually. I crunched my way through a packet of breakfast biscuits. The label said fruit’n’fibre but as far as I could tell the fibre was provided by sawdust and toenail clippings. I would be finding little curved crunchy things stuck in my teeth for the next two hours. It was time to get moving.
I trotted up the ridge and over a couple of small bumps to reach the summit proper, the mist playing a game of peekaboo with me as I went. Another high level sandy shoreline passed underfoot. When I reached the summit I paused for while to absorb the view to the north. It’s hard to find somewhere with so many great hills packed into such a small area; Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Cul Beag, Suilven, Canisp, Breabag. Even the mention of their unique names lifts the spirit with hope of adventure and mystery.
I started up the ridge towards Speicein nan Garbh-Choireachan. There was a path running low on the right hand side of the ridge, but that would obstruct the view of An Teallach to the left. The ridge proper also looked much more entertaining with rocky bumps and steps. As I paused for a breather, something moving in the sky caught my eye. From stage right, a feathered friend appeared. I watched with my jaw hanging open as an eagle soared across from the other side of the coire and looped around me. The camera would be useless, a wide-angle lens is no good for wildlife so I stood a watched him as he circled me again. As he swooped up towards the ridge again, I grabbed a snapshot so that the more eagle-eyed (ahem) could see him.
He flew up to the summit of the ridge and perched at the very top. He sat and watched me and I stood and watched him. He was showing the way, urging me to join him. The question was would I go where eagles dare? Broadsword calling Danny boy. Damn right I would.
I worked my way up the ridge, aiming to source the most scrambling I could get. It was grade one at best, but still satisfying getting hands onto the rough rock, all the while being watched keenly by my avian companion. I reached a tricky step and watched my feet for moment. When I looked up again the eagle was gone. I scoured the sky but he was nowhere to be seen. Off to source some breakfast somewhere no doubt, which reminded me, I was parched.
Far too quickly, the ridge came to an end and I was faced with the last rocky bump seemingly disappearing straight down into the sea.
My plan was to drop down and pick up the Postie’s path. This is so called because the postie used to have to walk to Achiltibuie with the mail. It was only in the 60s that tarmac roads became more common around here and even now it’s a long looping road all the way round the mountain, so these hardy chaps had a shortcut along the coast. The descent was steep and sustained. My right knee did it’s usual complaining routine as I zigged and zagged to find my way around outcrops and boulders.
Once I hit the path, with knees aching and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth I turned my mind to the most important task: how long was it going to be before I could get a cuppa? There was a spring marked on the map a little further on and just after that I would cross the river. Onwards to water.
I had expected the postie to be a lazy bugger, but the track was rough going over rock steps, traversing over steep gorges that dropped straight into the sea and with a lot of ups and downs and a regular need for hands-on. Not so much Postman Pat, more Postman Pat Littlejohn.
I missed the spring entirely, due to having to pay close attention to what I was doing. The trail has occasional markers, but they’re well spaced out and routefinding was harder than expected. I tracked back uphill at the river gorge to make the crossing, and stopped gratefully to refill myself and my bottle. Sweet merciful dihydrogen monoxide. I pulled up a large flat rock and got the stove on. My phone made that hoot noise it makes when it’s about to die, and my Powermonkey charger was useless (more on this later) so I made a time estimate of 90 mins to get back to the car and sent a last ‘safe and well’ message home before phone seppuku occured.
A cuppa and some late breakfast made things much better and I set back off along the path, admiring the posties for their hardiness as I went. The trail itself is hard to find in places and I found myself coming to a dead end in a quiet cove on one occasion and having to backtrack some way to find a faint track heading up and over. There were many inlets to traverse around and the going was slow. A couple of river crossings later and the rocky trail gave way to boggier grassy ground.
By the time I traversed along the slope overlooking the rocky ramparts of the ancient fort at Dun Canna, I was beginning to lose my sense of goodwill towards these posties, they seemed to have been experts in finding sucking bogs and protracted ankle breaking traverses. The last 1.5k was on prepared track, so normal pace was resumed, but even then it had taken me nearly twice as long as estimated to get back to the car.
I drove off and parked at Ardmair and stare at the ridge I’d walked that morning and take stock.
Full tank of petrol: £50
Bottle of Irn Bru: £1.75
Evil breakfast biscuits: £2
Walking airy ridges on coastal mountains with your own personal eagle guide: Priceless.