Tag Archives: Suilven

Packraft to Suilven Mountain

Gear report here

Anyone who’s climbed up the  fin-like ridge of Stac Polly will see a wild, lochan- and bog-speckled vista  spreading north across the Assynt. Just a couple of miles away are the peaks of Cul Mor and Suilven (main hill, left), relics of a glacier that ground down the land between them as it inched towards what’s now the sea.
The OS maplochanss (it’s worth keeping this link’s window open if you want to follow place names) shows this area as a Nation Nature Reserve, but it actually lost this designation a few years ago. And although it looks wild – so wild there’s no grazing, nor inhabited dwellings – this 100 square-miles of barely-fenced bog, rock and water is unusually accessible, bordered by quiet roads to the south and west, the A835 to the east, but not much to the north apart from the path passing below the north slope of Suilven. So seeing as this region of Coigach/Assynt has so few packable rivers, these lochans are a great place for short range packraft exploration following some of the routes suggested on the graphic, right. It’s not just me that thinks so, the local sea kayak outfitter as well as a couple of intrepid canoeists have been coming here over the years. For them the inter-lochan portages require some commitment. But not in a packraft!
You can make up a route to suit yourself here; climb every mountain, ford every stream, visit every island. I chose a pretty easy overnighter and got dropped off by the road at Linneraineach below Cul Beag. There’s nothing at Linner’ bar a footpath which leads north to Loch an Doire Dhuibh (right viewed from Cul Mor). My packplan was to paddle across Doire into the small adjacent loch, follow the channel into the main Loch Sionascaig, pay a visit to Eilean Mor, the biggest island hereabouts (and one of hundreds of Eilean Mors – or ‘big island’ in Scotland). From there I’d paddle among smaller isles towards the northeast shore of Sionascaig and walk past the ruin of Shieling over the saddle to the short river that links Fionn Loch to Loch Veyatie. With a paddle over to the south side of Suilven mountain, I’d find a dry spot to camp and take it from there. Suilven is only 731m or 2398 feet high, but it does have a strong draw on the imaginations of hillwalkers in far northwest Scotland, as do many of the Assynt’s peaks. I think much of it stems from its Ayers Rock- or Matterhorn-like separation from it’s surroundings; a distinctive mountain  shape, like the much more accessible Stac to the south. Add the lochans below and the open sea just a mile or two away, and mountain summits around here add up to something special. The picture right is taken from Ben Mor Coigach (743m) looking north over to Stac, Suilven and the distant peak of Quinaig. That’s another thing – the mountains have nice names around here with, you’d like to think, a touch of the Norse about them. This is after all Sutherland, or ‘the South Land’ in the mind of a Danish bloke in a horned helmet, circa 900AD. If you like hills there’s a panorama of some Sutherland mountains below, taken from the tip of the Coigach peninsula looking northeast.

Back to the boating; this was my first proper run in my Yak and as I pulled smoothly away from the shore of Loch Doire (left) it struck me how cool it is to trek over the hills with a pack of only 10-12 kilos, inflate your mini boat and set out across a body of water with your kit slung over the bow. In fact I’m convinced a frontal load makes packrafts faster as, despite the wind drag, the weight reduces the left-to-right yawing. Very soon I was surprised to see the GPS reading a steady and sustainable 3mph (4.8kph, 2.6 knots) on the calm, windless loch. “What’ll it do?” I wondered, as you do. About 4.1mph, as you ask, but only for a few seconds, unless there’s a Great White on your tail. I’m sure that was more than I ever registered in my old-shape Llama, and I dare say more than I could average walking along the surrounding terrain which was mostly pathless. When I got back a speed graph (right) extracted from the GPS spelled it out: tramping across the pathless hilly bogs – about 2.3mph; on the water, out of the wind – 3mph; on the water into the wind – 2.4mph but with some effort.
The channel that led west to Loch Sion (below Stac Polly, right) looked promising on the map, but even with the current high water levels following the deluge that was May, it soon got too shallow over the couple of metres drop to the next loch, and with a wince-inducing scrape the Yak hung up on a rock, requiring a short portage (left). That done, moving out onto Loch Sion a breeze was now in my face as I edged along the shore. Past Eilean Dubh I squeezed through another inter-island lead and out into the main loch, heading for Eilean Mor island. Even with the mild buffeting, it struck me how safe I felt alone in my raft; safer than I often feel initially in my Incept kayak at sea in similarly tame conditions. I think not being at sea had much to do with it, with no kind of wave or ill wind that could blow the Alpacka out to the wrong side of Greenland.
Eilean Mor is a natural focal point in Sion loch – what can it be like, an island set deep within in a wilderness? Many paddlers are fascinated by these tiny wooden islands on Scottish lochs, I assume like me, because they think it must be a UNESCO-like example of a hyper-pristine natural habitat beyond the reach of prolonged human intrusion. On the southern tip I can tell you there’s certainly a spacious, grassy camping spot (and now, a finely-built cairn), but as I half fell out of my boat and staggered ashore (left), the latest shower passed by as I beat my way inland towards the eilean’s summit, through a forest choked with ferns, birch, hazel and their fallen, decaying predecessors. As I bushwhacked upwards, an owl not 10 feet to my left flew off noiselessly, and in places the ferns hummed with a flouorescent green glow (above right).
At the summit, about 100 feet above the loch I looked over to the entrance to Boat Bay, a mile or so to the west (above left). To the north Suilven was a dark, uninviting rampart while to the south I imagined the walkers who daily take the short trek up Stac Polly (right) looking down on the progress of the little yellow boat far below and thinking, heck that looks fun!
I set off northeast, passing other inviting but unnamed isles (left and right), around Rubha Sionascaig with its alluring isthmus and up to Creag Sionascaig. Arriving at the shore, new shoots of grass poked through the blackened peat, scorched by the bushfires of early May which have been well and truly doused by the series of lashing gales which followed. I rolled up and headed up a creek line towards a saddle, passing a ruined croft which, as in so many remote locales in northwest Scotland, makes you wonder what on earth the people lived off up here?
Squelching over a novel mixture of burned peat crust spongebog mush (left), at the pass I looked down and saw half a dozen tents and a couple of canoes (right, barely visible) pitched at a meander in the river at a point where it was quite probably fordable. I’m sure the water there was running eastwards from Fionn into Loch Veyatie [it doesn’t], but if that’s the case then Fionn Loch is unusual in that it drains both ways, east and also west via the River Kirkaig to Lochinver and the sea. A geographical oddity? who knows [I do now; it isn’t]. I walked directly to Fionn, deployed the Yak and paddled across the channel (left). A short walk out of sight of the campers found a flat shoreline where I pitched beneath the looming mass of Suilven. 

At times I’d wondered whether there even was a path up the south side of Suilven mountain (left) – I’m sure I’d read it somewhere. Then, during a short spell of sunshine a steep path became briefly illuminated; straight up alongside a scree slope, then off at an angle to the saddle-ridge between the two peaks. But now it was raining steadily, I was pretty damp and not in the mood for a hefty slog across contours pressed together up like the teeth of a comb, but I feared once I got in the tent I’d probably slob out. So after a light feed, I set out, packstaff in hand, to locate the path up the hill and once on it, followed it till 8pm. If nothing else, it was a good way to warm up and dry off.
It would be nice to report a stirring vista some 400 metres below the summit of Suilven, but a leaden gloom pressed down on the sodden land. I’d called the Mrs – tomorrow would bring more rain, but the winds would return too first thing in the morning. Back in the tent and soon after sunset, the rain arrived early and lasted most of the night. It was all a bit much for my single-skin tent which, though amazingly light and compact, is not rated as waterproof. The drips soon came through the fabric of the flat roof as I dozed, soaking my legs and chilling me. Half-awake, I lay my cag over the drip zone, after which the night passed well enough and I woke reasonably dry.
The next day was not one for shorts; today I was going to try out my new Kokatat Swift Dry Pants (see Suilven Gear). I’d half a mind to catch the twice-daily bus at 11.15 from the junction (see green graphic, top of the page) and estimated it would take 4 hours to get there, so breakfast at 6am was cereal in warmed up loch water. It wasn’t raining yet which meant it would be shortly, so I packed up quick and scooted back over Fionn Loch, taking a different route back southwest, past Na Tri Lochan to an inlet on Loch Sion (see satellite image bottom of the page). It was a longer land stage, but would put me into a better position to dodge the predicted southwesterlies while paddling back west towards Boat Bay. I’ve been reading a lot of sea kayaking literature lately and the lessons were paying off.
Let me tell you, walking over the pathless mire following a night of rain is merely a necessary means to get to the next bit of fun paddling. My knee-high Seal Skin ‘Wellington socks’ were working fine – last night my feet had been bone dry – but it’s a tiring, rhythmless slog over this crap; any sheep trails are merely conduits for more running water and mud. Again, the star of the Gear Show has to be my packstaff; it makes walking on uneven ground, descents and climbs so much more secure, especially with a load.
I reached the inlet bang on time which took me by surprise. Was this some un-noted lochan, no it was Sion – I’d not read the inlet’s shape on the map closely enough. Once back on the water, initially my leeward paddling ploy worked well. Then I turned a corner and suddenly the wind was onto me and the bow was bouncing on the waves (left) as I hacked past the shore at barely 1mph. For a while I thought I’d have to give up and take to the shore but again, as sea kayaking lore states, wind is often exacerbated round a point or headland, even on a lochan. Near normal speeds resumed, in fact just a fraction under the still-and-calm 3mph cruising of yesterday, but at a heavy cost to the arms and shoulders. I couldn’t have done this all day but luckily, I didn’t have to so I got stuck in. Again I was surprised how safe I felt out here, alone and ill-dressed and where stopping to fiddle with the cameras pushed me back nearly as fast as I paddled forward.
Finally I entered the mouth of Boat Bay, back onto known ground. The end was in sight. Last September I couldn’t even paddle the Sunny out of this bay in a stiff easterly. Now I dug my way onwards to the tiny beach inlet which was notably smaller than last year. I rolled it all up and hiked up to the nearby road. Within a couple of miles g-friend’s hatchback popped over the hill and I was home and dry for lunchtime – a 15-mile, 24-hour mini packboating adventure completed, with lots more ideas for future exploring of the lochans below Suilven mountain.

Below: almost the entire route seen from Cul Mor summit, looking southwest and west. Stac and Summer Isles in the distance.
 

A wet weekend that turned windy

 Gale warning 23 May 09:53 UTC
Violent storm force 11 veering northwesterly imminent, decreasing gale force 8

 That storm hit some 200 miles west of here in Rockall, but you get the picture; it’s kite-shredding weather round here right now. Friday afternoon Ardmair near Ullapool recorded nearly 100 kph (62 mph), while we sat at the window and watched the sound run with streaks of foam. The way it’s blowing now I’d not be surprised if it gets over a 100 this week. As it turns out, along with us, the weather station up the loch went down in a 4-hour power cut at the height of the storm, but by then I read it reached 100 mph (160 kph) on the other side of Scotland.
A week ago intrepid French IK sea kayaker Gael A. set off from Skye (right) to complete
the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail (SSKT) which he started last August and wrote up for this blog. At that time he managed a fair chunk of the route before the weather turned. This time he was far less lucky; after a record hot April in the UK, May is turning into a bonanza harvest for wind farmers. By last Tuesday Gael had crossed over from Rona island to the mouth of Loch Torridon (above left, midway on the 9km crossing) and got up as far as he could before the fierce wind forced him back to camp. Next day he reached Sheildaig, at one point noting the spring tide flooding a patch of wildflowers (right). The forecast summaries I was texting him were not promising: days of F5-7 ahead. He was in a fix because from Torridon he had an exposed 45-km section past Gairloch to get around Rubha Reidh headland before turning east towards Loch Ewe, the Summer Isles and Ullapool, the finish line of the SSKT. Providing we could handle the conditions, Jon and I had hoped to meet him ‘after the scary bit’ somewhere around Loch Ewe and paddle for a couple of days together.
Gael is pretty experienced – 40 years sea yaking man and boy – so by Wednesday night he knew the game was up in the time he had left. Next day I drove down to pick him up and take him back to his car on Skye, if for no other reason than it’s a fabulous drive across Wester Ross that I’d not done before. On the way I eyed up the meandering River Bran which ran along a railway line (left) as a possible train-shuttle day trip with raft or IK. Glencoe? Schmencoe. There are scores of dramatic valleys like that up here and Loch Torridon itself is a fabulous spot I’d like to return to with my packboats. The whole of the northwest above Skye really is something else as the many touring bikers and pushbikers were no doubt finding out for themselves. The tiny hamlet of Sheildaig is a time-lost, lobster-pot fantasy tucked up an inlet. It didn’t take long to find Gael so we went over to his camp by the jetty, loaded the car and headed to Skye.
The Sound of Sleat off Kyleakin (left) was calm enough, but out beyond the bridge the sea had a bit of a head on it. We had a 1970s-era lunch, Gael checked out with the police in Lochalsh and decided to hang out up here on the off chance the weather improved and he or we could make a little tour of the Summer Isles. He was also keen to try out my Incept as his Grabner was showing the years. In fact is was he who last year pointed out that Incept K40 had evolved since I last checked it out. For me it was also a good chance to interrogate an experienced sea kayaker about the Ways of the Sea. Among the many skills I feel I lack is the judgement to know when it’s safe to got out and when I ought to turn back: interpreting clouds and wind changes, forecasts and sea states. It’s a lot of stuff to understand so we spent Friday chatting while refreshing various forecast websites: Saturday looked like a bit of a lull so Jon came up to for a paddling threesome.
We did the best we could on Saturday and set out from the campsite beach (left) to plant our flags on the calm side of Isle Ristol (which you can walk to at very low tide). Old Dornie was standing room only that day as a local skiff racing regatta was on, postponed from last weekend when Jon and I spent our time daring ourselves to do something and go somewhere.
Sat in the back of his aged H2 Grabner like a canoeist, Gael was far more confident than us – pushing out over some surf raised by a reef while we scurried away, appalled. We beached on Ristol for lunch then turned round into the wind blowing through Old Dornie harbour, dodging the skiffing crews (right) hauling out to a buoy and back to the cheers of the crowds until – to quote Gael – it got at least as ‘lively’ (below)  as the previous weekend when we’d taken a while to get the hang of it all. Hauling against the wind the two clicks to the main Summer Isles looked a bit of a reach.

We turned back to the campsite launch as it filled with tooled-up sea kayakers who I fear were not going to have the great weekend’s paddling they’d come for. We headed over to Achnahaird Beach on the north side which ought to be either sheltered or with an offshore wind, depending on how you looked at it. Once in, I pointed to a Point and said let’s go there! but the Wise Old Man of the Sea advised we keep along the leeside cliffs in case the wind picked up as was predicted. The sea was flat enough between gusts but had a big, rolling swell which was an odd sensation I’ve not experienced before. I wasn’t sure if I should be anxious or just enjoy the ride.
Once in a while a series of bigger swells rolled by and churned around the outcrops, or crashed against the red sandstone cliffs, but without any real danger to a boater as there was no surf. We’ve all seen impressive sea kayaking long lens shots like that; relaxed yaker in profile with a backdrop of white-foam carnage. Even under skies which looked like they were about to collapse under their own weight (choose any pic nearby), it was a nice end to the day, running past the moss-clad cliffs and spooky caves from which pealed unrecognisable squawks. A lone seal popped up from a distance to check us out and to the east rose the naked spurs of Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac, carved out of the Assynt’s bedrock during the last Ice Age.
Jon glided along in his LV like he was on rails; you got to hand it to these hardshell SinKs, they may be a pain to carry on the Tube but they sure look good on the water – viewed from the stable-as-a-cow-pat perch of an IK, of course! Heck, it all felt like proper sea kayaking. Further up, around Rubha na Coigach headland I dare say it all gets pretty hairy, but it sure would be nice to cruise further along this coast with the Mrs some warm, calm and sunny evening.
And before the weekend was done, Gael got onto Sea Kayak Oban and bought their K40 test boat which I tried out last March. He got a great deal all things considered; I’d have bought it myself had I not already ordered my yellow boat. So that’s at least two K40s in action on the high seas; mine, his and maybe yours too soon.